Texas author and Spur Award Winner Elizabeth Crook brings home another winner with her historical fiction in "The Which Way Tree." It's the funniest and most horrific book I've ever read. The horrific parts aren't funny, but the way they are told and reflected upon are delightful.
Narrator Benjamin Shreve takes us through his life in Texas of the 1860s. His mother dies and Papa Shreve marries a former slave, Juda, a woman covered with scars. She is mean, but she keeps a clean house, according to Benjamin. He grows up with his younger half sister, Juda's child, Samantha. Ben calls her Sam, and he becomes her dedicated, long-suffering guardian after both parents are dead by the time the children are twelve and ten years old.
Juda is killed by a panther who preys on six-year-old Sam. Juda fights him until he releases Sam and turns on her. She chops off all but two toes on one of the panther's feet. Sam and Ben beat the panther back and drag Juda's body to the cabin. From that moment, Sam is obsessed with the mission to find and kill the panther. The panther becomes known as "El Diablo de Dos Dedos," the Demon with Two Toes. El Diablo is the major protagonist in the story, leaving his distinctive tracks around livestock pens and muddy creek banks.
The book flap says this novel is Sam's odyssey. While Sam is without question the main catalyst, it's not her odyssey. It's Ben's, a brave, loyal, resourceful, and courageous teenage boy who's saddled with a badly scarred and disturbed little sister. He sees himself as her only hope, and he risks his life for her time and again. Like a true odyssey, there are villains. Sometimes Samantha is the villain, because she brings danger. But besides the panther there's a wicked former Confederate soldier, a true sociopath in the realm of Bandera County, Texas, where much of the action takes place. And there are helpers--a Mexican man of adventure who appears to save the kids and a preacher who speaks wisdom like an oracle. Also on the list of helpers is Zachariah, an old panther dog who gets his second wind chasing El Diablo.
The novel is pervaded by a sense of danger throughout. But it still manages to make a reader chuckle. Narrator Ben tells his story in the form of letters he writes to a judge who wants information for a grand jury case. While providing evidence, Ben takes off on his own closely-entwined story. He reminded me of Huck Finn, with a strong native intelligence, and all the character ingredients that make him a hero.
A note on the title: At one point, the preacher interprets events as "signs" that the group continue in pursuit of the panther. He says it's like Sam Houston's "which-way tree," an old oak whose branches pointed toward two different trails. Houston took the path toward San Jacinto and the turning of the tide in the fight for an independent Texas.