The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook has been described as a book in the same vain as True Grit and The Lonesome Dove. Though I have yet to read The Lonesome Dove, I have read and loved True Grit many times, and I have to say, though I see a small resemblance, The Which Way Tree doesn't hold a candle to True Grit, and I don't think it's right or fair to compare the two.
The Which Way Tree is a novel that takes place in the remote hill country of Texas and is narrated by 17 year old Benjamin Shreve, through his plain-spoken voice. It tells the story of Benjamin's enduring love for his half-sister, albeit begrudgingly at times, and Samantha aka Sam's unshakable resolve to kill the panther that killed her mother, told rather matter-of-factly by Ben himself.
Ever since a panther, rumored across the Rio Grande to be a demon, killed Sam's mother and maimed her face, she's been relentless and obsessed about stalking and killing it, much like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. Sam wears the mark of that fateful day across her face from where the panther attacked her and when her mother sacrificed her life to save Sam's. She doesn't have a lot going for her according to Benjamin's testimony, calling her not much to look at, especially with the marked up face, with a down-right disagreeable disposition to match and to top it all off, she's mulatto, but she's also blood kin, though only half blood, sharing a father.
Ben spent most of his young years looking after his sister, making sure people didn't mistake her for a runaway slave, and keeping her out of trouble. But her obsession with tracking down the panther made it awfully hard. Soon they are joined by a Tejano outlaw and a compassionate preacher with an aging but relentless tracking dog... Will they ever find and kill that panther?
I found this story a bit perplexing. It starts out with Benjamin testifying in person in front of a grand jury and judge on a matter that doesn't have much to do with the panther at all, yet the story itself is about the panther. In fact 95% of the book is formatted through letters written by Benjamin, his drawn out testimony on the matter of crimes committed by a Clarence Hanlin. The trouble is, the book touches loosely on Hanlin, and mostly on the panther. I just find it odd that Crook would choose to build the story this way and feel that there had to have been a better way of going about it. The story is a bit dry and drags on too much in most places, but there is just enough intrigue to keep you reading, though some less dedicated would probably put it down fairly quickly. I will say, the ending was one of the most interesting parts of the book.
Overall, it's definitely not among the best westerns I've read. If you're looking for an excellent, true blue western, I'd recommend books by Elmer Kelton, Charles Portis, Alan Le May, or Louis L'Amour. The book just simply didn't interest me enough to have made it worth my while, and for that, I'm disappointed. I was truly hoping to find a great read in The Which Way Tree, but I didn't. That's not to say someone else shouldn't give it a try. I picked it up on a recommendation from a friend, they loved it. I guess I'm just pickier about my westerns.
I will note: If you are sensitive to graphic or gruesome scenes, I'd skip this one.
I give it a 5/10.
Liz Austin. Bibliophile. Writer. Book hoarder. I would rather be reading....