The Which Way Tree
by Elizabeth Crook
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018.
279 pp. $26.00 cloth.
The Which Way Tree is the fourth of Elizabeth Crook’s five novels set at least partly in Texas. In it, a sixteen-year-old Benjamin Shreve writes to a judge his account of the hanging of ten Union sympathizers and about the Rebel soldier, Clarence Hanlin, who executed them. As a part of his testimony he tells of the attack by a cougar (called a panther then) on his half sister, Samantha, and her mother, Jada. Jada is killed attempting to rescue her. With an ax she chops off several of its toes. The marauding panther becomes known as “El Demonio de Dos Dedos.” Samantha, only ten and orphaned, vows revenge on the animal, and most of the novel concerns her hunting it. The novel features an interesting cast of characters. There’s Lorenzo Pacheco, much older now than when he was one of the heroes of Crook’s novel of the Texas Revolution, Promised Land. A master horseman, Pacheco is like a guardian angel rescuing Benjamin and Samantha on several occasions. There’s the murderer, Clarence Hanlin, an inept villain, more an object of humor. There’s Clarence’s uncle, old Preacher Dob, who detests Clarence, but is in on the hunt because he owns the panther dog, Zechariah who is my favorite character. All reviewers have their biases. I like dog stories. As a child, I read every dog story I could find—especially those by Albert Payson Terhune, Jim Kjelgaard, and Jack London. And later I loved Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, like Which Way Tree, set in the Texas hill country. And In Crook’s Promised Land, amid all of the carnage of Goliad, most touching was the young hero’s having to choke his faithful dog to prevent the Spanish soldiers from finding him in hiding.
Here, Zechariah does not look like a panther dog. Benjamin describes the animal by saying, “It had a big head and powerful looking jaws; however, its hind end was scrawny and its legs was short.” And he was old with just one eye—the other ripped out by a panther, one of the more than fifty he had tracked when he was younger. At first, Preacher Dob would not allow his dog to be used. Undecided, he looks at the dog and says, “What say you?” Then Benjamin reports, “the dog answered as if he spoke.” Finally, Benjamin says, “We none of us had a question but there was meaning behind the stare. There was a message in it. Then he got up and walked to the door and stood with his nose to it. He all but said he was ready to go.”
So the adventure begins, but the panther dog is so old he has to be carried on horse back to the place to track the panther. Once there, though, he changes. Benjamin reports, “but before the dog even settled upon the ground, he tossed his head up, become alert, sniffed the air, and took off.… I never seen such energy in a dog. He was all a-tremble with every sniff, and then on to the next.” The hunters cannot keep up with him, and the following hunt makes up the remainder of the novel.
This is not just a good dog story. The Which Way Tree is a good people story, with interesting characters challenged by the weather, terrain, and animals of the Texas hill country. Once the chase begins, the story moves quickly to a rather surprising conclusion.
Dick Heaberlin teaches English at Texas State University. He is the former coeditor of Texas Books in Review and Southwestern American Literature.