Review published on July 4, 2018.
On April 25, 1866, in the small Texas town of Bandera, a grand jury is convened to hear evidence regarding the deaths by hanging of eight men who were murdered some three years previously, during the height of the American Civil War. The Which Way Tree opens with the presiding judge, one Edward Carlton, hearing the testimony of seventeen-year-old Benjamin Shreve, who is thought to have been the first person to find the bodies. Benjamin is also convinced that he knows the identity of one of the murderers, a sadistic Confederate soldier named Clarence Hanlin.
When it becomes clear that Benjamin has a great deal to tell the court, as well as a rather roundabout way of doing so, Judge Carlton brings the initial hearing to a close and requests that Benjamin return home, write down his testimony and post it on to him (the Civil War having given rise to numerous murders and misdeeds, the judge cannot remain in one jurisdiction for long, but must instead travel around dispensing justice as best he can). Benjamin takes to this task with gusto and his letters to the judge constitute most of the rest of the novel. In them, Benjamin relates his early life with his father, his stepmother Juda and his half-sister Samantha (or Sam, as she prefers to be known). He also describes the fateful encounter with a panther that led to the death of Juda and the scarring of Sam’s face, and eventually prompted the brother and sister to embark on a quest for vengeance during which they encountered Clarence Hanlin.
Benjamin Shreve is an exceptional letter writer and storyteller. The tale he recounts in the letters that comprise the bulk of The Which Way Tree is fraught was danger and hardship – Benjamin and Sam have both been dealt a very difficult hand in life – but he describes it in such a way that even the most arduous moments feature humour and hope. He is quite disarmingly honest when it comes to describing his life and the people/circumstances he encounters. Elizabeth Crook has done an excellent job of crafting a pitch-perfect voice for Benjamin and through him telling a highly emotional and often exciting story of survival against the odds. Having Benjamin’s testimony presented in the form of letters and allowing him to reach the salient points gradually and via many intriguing diversions is a great storytelling device.
The relationship between Benjamin and his younger sister Sam is a very interesting one. They are half siblings; Benjamin is white, while Sam is mixed race. After their parents died when they were still very young (they were orphaned at the ages of 13 and 11, respectively), they had no one left but each other. In his letters, Benjamin frequently expresses dismay regarding Samantha’s temperament (she is “a person of uncommon temper”), her lazy ways and her desire to get revenge on the panther that killed her mother, whatever the cost. Yet, he takes pains to protect her from the dangers that surround them, attempts to find her a better (more secure) situation and eventually follows her on her quest. As for the feisty and undeniably hot-headed Sam, it’s a little harder to know quite what she feels about her brother.
Although it is the murder of the eight hanged men that prompts Benjamin to write down his testimony, his story and that of his sister extends far beyond the killings. Their life as homesteaders was ridiculously hard even before their parents died, and afterwards they had to struggle on, despite their youth, with barely any help. Elizabeth Crook sets the scene of their lives marvellously and packs the story with a great deal of detail while never detracting from the plot. Their search for the panther forms a kind of odyssey during which they both grow as individuals and get to know each other better, and they meet an arresting array of folk along the way, including potential murderers, horse thieves and army deserters. They have to deal with some dangerous people, but they also meet some good folks too.
The Which Way Tree is an action-packed western with a hell of a lot of heart. It’s frequently very funny and always hugely entertaining. The characters, whether heroes or villains, are compelling and it is a joy to follow them on their (mis)adventures. It should prove a particularly good read for fans of The Sisters Bothers, Only Thieves and Killers and Blood Meridian.
Erin Britton 5/5
The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook
Scribe UK 9781911617167 pbk Jul 2018