Friday, March 2, 2018

"The Which Way Tree," tells a Texas Hill Country story

Elizabeth Crook the Which Way Tree cover
The Which Way Tree, by Elizabeth Crook
The Which Way TreeElizabeth Crook's latest novel, is a compelling story set in the rocky canyons around Camp Verde and Bandera Pass during the American Civil War. In the book a young girl, Samantha, and her mother are attacked by a mountain lion; the mother dies and Samantha's face is disfigured. Orphaned, Samantha becomes obsessed with killing the mountain lion. Her half-brother Benjamin reluctantly joins the pursuit, if only to keep watch on his sister. As they seek her revenge they are joined by an aging preacher, a colorful rancher, and a panther-tracking dog -- all while being pursued by an angry and wounded Confederate soldier.
Life in Kerr County in the 1860s was hard. Human dangers were many, from Indian raids to terrifying Hangerbandes. Nature offered death from snakebites, disease, or common infections. People lived in isolation, sheltered inside crude cabins, living miles from help or aid. Ms. Crook paints that part of her story well, and accurately.
Elizabeth Crook by Kenny Braun
Elizabeth Crook
Photo by Kenny Braun
In addition, small historic details -- from the spelling of Kerrsville to a passing mention of Simon Ayala, a local one-legged cowboy -- are spot on. Reading the story transports you to our home country as it was in 1863.
Others have noted the influence of True Grit and Moby Dick on this story of Samantha's determination to kill the mountain lion which killed her mother. There is another influence on this novel, one perhaps not known to those who do not live here: the Texas Hill Country is a major character in The Which Way Tree. In Crook's novel the land shapes the characters as much as the time period in which they live, and Samantha's single-minded determination reflects the grit which was required of all who settled here in the 1860s.
Ms. Crook has deep Kerr County roots: her great-grandmother opened a grocery store in Kerrville in 1905, and her family owns property near Camp Verde. Setting the story in our area reveals her understanding of our local history, the fact that she's spent a lot of time here, and also a gentle appreciation of the land itself.
The Which Way Tree (Little, Brown, 288 pages, $26) is available locally at Wolfmueller's Books.

This review originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times March 1, 2018.

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