cover image The Which Way Tree

The Which Way Tree

Elizabeth Crook. Little, Brown, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-316-43495-9

Crook’s poignant, plainspoken fifth novel (after Monday, Monday) focuses on historical Texas, this time during the Civil War era. In a framing narrative, Benjamin Shreve recalls the signal events of his 14th year for a judge investigating crimes committed during the war. Eight-year-old Benjamin Shreve, his biracial half-sister, Samantha, and her mother, a former slave, are attacked by a wild panther near their isolated hill country home. Like Ahab—Benjamin has read Moby-Dick—Samantha cannot forget her animal nemesis, which kills her mother, disfigures her face, and is believed in the region to be demonic. When it returns six years later, she feels driven to track and kill it. With help from a Mexican man fleeing accusations of horse theft and the owner of a skilled “panther dog,” the siblings pursue the beast despite its vicious savagery, the punishing Texas landscape, and the machinations of Clarence Hanlin, a rogue Confederate soldier from nearby Camp Verde who becomes embroiled in their mission. Though Samantha’s obsession drives the story, her character never fully crystallizes, and the links to Melville’s classic can feel forced. But Crook crafts Benjamin’s narration beautifully, finding a winning balance between naiveté and wisdom, thoughtfulness and grit. (Feb.)