The Which Way Tree
Now Available in Paperback
WInner of the Willa Literary Award for Fiction
Read an Interview on Texas Book Festival: Elizabeth Crook on Her New Novel "The Which Way Tree"
The story of a young girl's frightening and poignant odyssey to track down the panther that killed her mother.
Early one morning in the remote hill country of Texas, a panther savagely attacks a family of homesteaders, mauling a young girl named Samantha and killing her mother, whose final act is to save her daughter’s life. Samantha and her half brother, Benjamin, survive, but she is left traumatized, her face horribly scarred.
Narrated in Benjamin’s beguilingly plainspoken voice, The Which Way Tree is the story of Samantha’s unshakeable resolve to stalk and kill the infamous panther, rumored across the Rio Grande to be a demon, and avenge her mother’s death. In their quest she and Benjamin, now orphaned, enlist a charismatic Tejano outlaw and a haunted, compassionate preacher with an aging but relentless tracking dog. As the members of this unlikely posse hunt the panther, they are in turn pursued by a hapless but sadistic Confederate soldier with troubled family ties to the preacher and a score to settle.
In the tradition of the great pursuit narratives, The Which Way Tree is a breathtaking saga of one steadfast girl’s revenge against an implacable and unknowable beast. Yet with the comedic undertones of Benjamin’s storytelling, it is also a timeless tale full of warmth and humor, and a testament to the enduring love of a brother and sister caught up in a perilous adventure that takes on the dimensions of a legend.
Reviews for The Which Way Tree
“Not since True Grit have I read a novel as charming, exciting, suspenseful, and pitch-perfect as The Which Way Tree. Elizabeth Crook’s new book is winning from first page to last.”
—Ron Hansen, author of The Kid and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
“Elizabeth Crook has created a book of marvels. Its comedy is steeped in the hardscrabble tragedies of a wilder old America. You will even catch an echo of Twain’s wit in the picaresque narration.”
—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of the national bestseller The Hummingbird’s Daughter
“In The Which Way Tree, a boy and his sister are engaged in the pursuit of a panther that killed a relative, while they are in turn pursued by a misfit Confederate veteran who means them harm. Elizabeth Crook has conjured a powerful, sly, and often charming tale delivered in the winning voice of Benjamin as he sends a series of letters and testaments to a concerned judge. A fast-paced story resonating with rich characters and mythic elements that come to us as folklore that mustn't be doubted.”
—Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version
“Elizabeth Crook has invented a brilliant way of seeing the old Texas frontier: at very close range, through the eyes of a wise-beyond-his-years seventeen-year-old boy and the sister whose defiant quest he joins. The result is a small-scale masterwork, richly detailed and beautifully rendered.”
—S. C. Gwynne, New York Times bestselling author of Empire of the Summer Moon
“When I began to read this book its unique voice appealed to me immediately. Elizabeth Crook has written a beautiful novel with wonderful characters.”
“ ‘Preacher Dob said, Vengeance belongs to the Lord, Samantha. She said, Only if he can beat me to it.’ This told me everything I needed to know about Samantha Shreve, a character who knocked my socks off from her first appearance on the page. This book is the stuff of legends, tales told for a hundred years around Texas campfires. Written in a form that is historically accurate and yet feels painstakingly intimate, The Which Way Tree is unlike anything I’ve read before.”
—Attica Locke, author of Bluebird, Bluebird
“The Which Way Tree is one part Track of the Cat, one part True Grit, and one part Tom Sawyer, a ruthless pedigree for a novel that displays human nature in its most beautiful form—a marvel.”
—Craig Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of The Western Star, a Walt Longmire mystery
“Poignant and plainspoken . . . Crook crafts Benjamin’s narration beautifully, finding a winning balance between naivete and wisdom, thoughtfulness and grit.”
“Recalls Cormac McCarthy’s horseback meandering and keen eye for terrain and flora in The Crossing. There are also obvious echoes of True Grit, though Sam is even more fiercely single-minded than Mattie . . . An entertaining picture of harsh, stark life in the Old West.”
“Spur award-winning Crook's (The Night Journal; Monday, Monday) fifth novel will be a must-read for fans of Joe Lansdale's Western adventures and Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers. Readers new to the Western genre will be hooked if they start with this compelling novel.”
Emily Hamstra, —Library Journal *starred*
“This is a story of unremitting deprivation allayed by unexpected kindness, with a dangerous chase motivated by love and suffused with humanity.”
Michele Leber, —Booklist
“Crook had me from the beginning. The Which Way Tree is unlike anything I’ve read before... The action is suspenseful and fast-paced; the narrative flow seamless; the dialogue often laugh-out-loud funny; Benjamin’s developing relationship with the judge through his letters is sweetly affecting. Crook’s research is evident in the period details, rhythms of speech, and Texas history.
Benjamin notes that Samantha’s obsession with the panther is like that of Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby-Dick. That story is an obvious parallel to The Which Way Tree; a less obvious parallel is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. A diverse cast of travelers, on a journey in the same direction but for different reasons, with different backgrounds — including a Confederate soldier, a young Anglo boy, a young mulatto girl, a reformed minister, and a Tejano who reminds me of Rhett Butler—a reforming scalawag.
The Which Way Tree is an enthralling adventure, a Texas fairy tale in the truest sense of that term—not a Disney version, but a Brothers Grimm, Old World fairy tale for the New World.”
—Michelle Newby, Lone Star Literary Life
“It’s impossible not to think of icons of the frontier Texas subgenre that have mined the same vein. Among them: Charles Portis, True Grit; Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove; Fred Gipson, Old Yeller. While set in the 1930s, Joe Lansdale’s The Bottoms also has a very similar feel. It’s a notable stable of companions, and you will hear more of this fine addition to the list.”
—Rod Davis, Texas Observer
“The Which Way Tree is the latest from Austin author Elizabeth Crook, who manages in it the striking feat of not only capturing the voice of a 19th century youth as honestly and compellingly as Mark Twain did but also having her Texas Huck recount a Moby Dick-like pursuit across Texas in which the White Whale is a malevolent mountain lion and its Ahab is a girl it mauled while killing her mother.”
“The Which Way Tree packs an epic feel into 272 pages, stretching from the chaos of post-bellum Texas to the comparative civility of the early 20th century....It’s a ripping good tale of vengeance, a fast-moving yet epic story about a young woman against nature, set in a chaotic Texas, complete with a kindly man on the run, a Confederate soldier who becomes an enemy of sorts, an old man and a trusty dog: If you think this sounds awfully cinematic, well, you’d be right. Robert Duvall has already picked up the film option on The Which Way Tree.”
“..as this deceptively simple novel progresses, it becomes clear that Crook is interested in more than a classic western pursuit narrative. Characters who initially appear as clichés—the noble Mexican, the earnest preacher—are revealed to have unexpected motives and backstories. Quests for revenge or profit or just plain Christian paternalism turn out to be flawed attempts at redemption and human connection...Crook’s slim, intimate novel illustrates how, at their best, historical westerns provide insight into human nature tested by the sort of extreme conditions that rarely crop up in contemporary American settings.”
—Mary Helen Specht, Texas Monthly| Read full review
“Set in post-Civil War Texas, this exuberant novel is narrated by 17-year-old Benjamin Shreve, whose younger half-sister Samantha is obsessed with the wild panther that killed her mother, a former slave. Benjamin’s voice has echoes of 'Huckleberry Finn', while the girl’s pursuit of the deadly cat recalls 'True Grit.'”
“In the tradition of Charles Portis's classic True Grit, Elizabeth Crook's heart-pounding adventure, The Which Way Tree, features a tough-as-nails orphan in pursuit of frontier justice. But 12-year-old Sam, our indefatigable Texan heroine, is the daughter of a former slave, and the murderer she's hunting isn't a double-crossing man but a demonic panther that killed her mother. Joined by a loquacious Tejano outlaw, a preacher and his scruffy hound, and 14-year-old Benjamin, who does double duty as her brother and our keen-eyed narrator, Sam sets out for revenge. Of course, as in all great cat-and-mouse thrillers, while Sam hunts her quarry, she herself is being stalked—in this case by Clarence Hanlin, or the Sesesh, a highway-robbing Confederate who's had it out for her since she shot off one of his fingers. Like Hanlin, you'll follow Sam to the ends of the earth.”
—Natalie Beach, O Magazine | Read full review
“There's a bit of Ahab in [Samantha]...and a lot of Mattie Ross, the cussedly obstinate heroine of Charles Portis's True Grit. Her monomania motors this ripping adventure through the canyons and arroyos of the Texas-Mexico border....[and] leads the make-shift hunters through a gauntlet of disasters to the novel's show-stopping finale.”
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
Listen to Joy Diaz of Texas Standard and Clay Smith of Kirkus Reviews discuss The Which Way Tree | Listen online at the Texas Standard | or download the mp3 file
“It’s a story that hooked me from the get-go, and when Benjamin finishes his last letter to the judge, I wanted the story to continue . . . Fans of Paulette Jiles’s News of the World will be gratified to find another well-told, old-time Texas tale of big adventure and big characters.”
—Emily Spicer, San Antonio Express News
“...Like some of the finest books that came out of our nation's first century and a quarter, The Which Way Tree leads us into the wild, where characters must confront both the wildness in nature and the wildness in their own nature. That which is in Sam's heart has the awesome force of a thunderstorm – or a mountain lion – and can no more be tamed than either of them can. But Elizabeth Crook has at least wrestled hers onto the page and lets us get close to it, close enough for the hairs on our arms to rise. In this remarkable novel, she's given us something wild to wonder at, and to be moved by.”
—Robert Faires, The Austin Chronicle | Read full review
“A gripping page-turner, readers will want to devour The Which Way Tree in one sitting.”
—Sadie Trombetta, Bustle | Read full review
“A multilayered tale . . . Benjamin Shreve, the teenage narrator of The Which Way Tree, unspools his tale of Civil War-era Texas in a voice that is utterly convincing, consistent, and believable. Crook never slips out of that voice for a moment. This is no small feat... Any first-person voice involving a young Southern boy invites comparisons to Huck Finn. But dialects have complexities and Crook appears to be a master of them. Benjamin's voice swings between the rhythms of the Southern hills and the lofty, elevated tone encountered in Twain and contemporary Westerns . . . His speech can switch from hyperbole to understatement in the same sentence--and it is a wonderfully deadpan understatement . . . The language is arresting . . . The Which Way Tree is a commendable and very readable addition to the tale-spinning tradition and its beautiful use of language.”
―Paulette Jiles, New York Times Book Review
“...The story is filled with terrific scenes of panther attack, natural disaster and treachery. Will Collyer narrates at a nice slow pace, his voice and manner capturing Ben’s semi-educated, country-boy solemnity and the story’s overall air of old-fashioned adventure.”
―Katherine A Powers, The Washington Post (review of audio version)
“The Which Way Tree [is] the ultimate hunting tale wrapped in rich Western lore written by the multi-award-winning Elizabeth Crook. Her wry story is told in a Twain-esque, easy-flowing vernacular that is a joy to read. Even better is Ms. Crook’s amazing Samantha, who won’t let hunger, exhaustion, or a murderous Confederate renegade slow her quest for vengeance.... [The] tale is fast-paced and uniquely entertaining, so I had trouble slowing down enough to savor The Which Way Tree. ”
—Jo Ann Butler, Historical Novels Review