The Which Way Tree: A Novel by Elizabeth Crook

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The fact that she was so hard on me and on Samantha makes it all the more curious the way she laid her life down, in such a bloody fashion, in defense of Samantha the day a panther came calling.

I usually don’t read a lot of novels set in the Civil War era but this story is written in such a way that the reader feels they’ve traveled back in time. The language feels authentic, I marvel at authors with the ability to place the proper drawl in their writing. The mother of Benjamin died after his birth, in the hard scrabble existence of the times, his father needed a woman so he found a mate in Juda, a ‘borrowed’ black woman whom he decided to love or keep, depending how you look at the situation. She birthed a daughter, his half-sister Sam. Mean to the bone, she fast showed young Benjamin who was boss of the house, but the meanness was born of hardness she must have experienced, as one night when she disrobed to show Ben he has already been beat in ‘leaving his mark on her flesh’. She certainly doesn’t take kindly to threats, especially from young boys. When a panther comes calling, she sacrifices herself to save her daughter Sam, but the panther can’t be bested by Juda’s grit. The attack on Sam can’t be stopped, leaving her face ravaged. A taste for vengeance is born in her, as her mother is dragged off by the big cat. It’s too late by the time their father returns to save Juda.

Through letters to a judge, Jim is testifying about the deaths of prisoners  one Clarence Hanlin may have a part in, but this becomes for the reader the story itself. “For six years, Sam had been waiting in a way that was eager. It seemed sometimes that all she did was wait, and watch for that panther.” Her obsession among other hardships they face force them to venture out after their father dies. They interfere with a Secesh named Hanlin, saving one Lorenzo Pacheco (the Mexican) . Taking a finger off with a hell of a shot, they discover that Hanlin’s uncle, Preacher Dob owns a dog that is a great tracker of… panthers. Hanlin is a bad seed, as the preacher is fast to remind with stories of his childhood deeds. The dog decides to help the children hence, the preacher joins them on their journey. Things don’t pan out as Hanlin thought they would, he wants his money, and he will stalk them as they stalk the devil panther and get his horse back too!

Life is more than hardscrabble, in fact Sam has grown to be as hard as her own mother was, minus the work ethics. She isn’t the most likable person, but if you explore what you learn about her, it’s hard to imagine her any other way. A face wrecked by a wild animal that killed her mother, her mother was ‘given’ to her father so there is her mixed race to contend with, the environment, the hardscrabble existence, what’s to be so dang happy about anyway? Ben, where does Ben get his light? He doesn’t seem to carry the same poison inside of him his wounded, angry half-sister does. He too lost his mother, though he never knew her. The only touch of a mother he ever knew had been through Juda, and based on the prologue we know she was mean to the marrow of her bones yet somehow manages to maintain a natural peace. By simply writing his letters, he encounters everything from rattlesnakes, to back-breaking work, hunger, not to mention the hassle of his spitfire sister who can’t seem to be bothered, to the point even Sam’s mare would be happy to see her elsewhere. It’s simply the state of his life, not one he complains about. He charms the judge through their correspondence, and receives help without ever asking for it. Sam is a different story entirely, and she makes her own ending, one Benjamin hears much later.

Do they kill the panther, avenging Juda’s death? Can they survive the threat of the Secesh, the Comanches, and all the hard luck things that befall them? Will the truth of just how bad Clarence Hanlin is ever be proven? You have to read.

I don’t usually read western novels, but I wanted a break from my usual reads. I wasn’t disappointed.

Publication Date: February 6, 2018

Little, Brown and Company

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