"I seen the panther before me, but not facing me, as it was looking at Sam. It twitched its tail. The kid lay dead before it. The other goats was bunched up in the dark on the far side of the pen. The panther then turned its face to me, and its yellow eyes in the light of my lantern was like two holes showing a fire burning inside the panther's skull."
A dead-of-night close encounter with such a beast would be fearsome enough, but by the time this one occurs in The Which Way Tree, the reader already knows this particular panther. It was responsible for mauling the girl Sam – short for Samantha – when she was 6 and surely would have killed her had it not been for her mother Juda fearlessly leaping on its back and hacking at it with a hatchet. But then the panther sank its fangs in Juda's throat and that was the end for her. Six years later, the big cat has come back, and our knowing the blood it has already spilled and fearing it's returned to finish the kill it was kept from finishing before makes facing it across an open goat pen doubly chilling.
That's one way Elizabeth Crook grips you in her latest novel: pitting vulnerable humans against a bloodthirsty beast of almost supernatural size, power, and intelligence, a creature so vicious and unstoppable that it's become legend. Crook's mountain lion – "panther" in the parlance of the book's Civil War-era Texas setting – may not have the size of Moby-Dick, but it casts as long a shadow as the White Whale, with settlers from the Hill Country to the Rio Grande sharing tales of the dreaded Demonio de Dos Dedos – the Demon of Two Toes. It's a name that, like the flame imagined in the panther's eyes, suggests a thing out of hell, and Crook has fittingly fashioned a figure hellbent on exterminating it. Sam, the scrawny 12-year-old daughter of a former slave and a white man, is about as far as you can get physically from Melville's Ahab, but in her fierce temperament and single-minded resolve to revenge herself on the beast that scarred her – no matter the danger to herself or anyone else – she is the captain's match. When she's pulled from the goat pen and almost certain death, all Sam can do is berate her savior, shouting at her half-brother Ben, "You done me wrong! I could of shot it in the face and killed it once and for all! You stole away my chance!" It's Sam who drives Ben and some unlikely allies – a courtly Tejano with a shadowy past; the dutiful, God-fearing Preacher Dob; and Dob's one-eyed old "panther dog," Zechariah – to hunt down the demon cat, and though the quest winds up packed with perils, from Blue Northers and flash floods to posses and one self-centered, mean-spirited scoundrel of a "Sesesh" who can be counted on to make a bad situation worse, Sam never wavers in her crusade. Like Ahab, only one thing matters: Kill the beast. And if God gets in the way, that's His worry.
In many ways, The Which Way Tree is Sam's story, but Crook has wisely chosen not to have her tell it. Just as part of Ahab's power comes from our seeing him through another's eyes, Sam is all the more compelling because we aren't in her head, hearing her thoughts. The depth and breadth of her pain is unknowable to us; we can only gauge some measure of it through the fury and tenacity and woundedness that are described to us. In this, Crook has enlisted Ben as our Ishmael, recounting the hunt for the panther as Melville's narrator did, after the fact, but through a series of letters to a judge who requires Ben's testimony in the case of Clarence Hanlin, that Sesesh bad penny who kept turning up along their way. How Crook managed to channel the voice of a 17-year-old boy in 1860s Texas so convincingly I can't say, but Ben is both persuasive and captivating, a fully realized character that you gladly follow across the Lone Star State. In his youth and lack of education and simple, declarative voice, he calls to mind another figure from 19th-century American literature, Huck Finn. Ben may be a bit more conscientious and better read than Twain's young rascal (he admits to having read Moby-Dick), but he shares Huck's keen eye for observing human nature and teasing out some sense of what it means. Ben's voice is another way in which Crook grips the reader, a much more subtle way, and may be the novel's secret weapon. Ben isn't worldly, but he's beginning to grasp his place in the world through his conscience and his heart. Near the novel's end, he says of Sam:
"I seen a lot of anger was jammed up inside her and aching to bust loose. I did not feel she had a right to be spiteful with me, and yet I knew I would have no choice but to take on her anger, as there was nobody else to do so. We was in the middle of nowhere, and nearly froze to death, and it was up to me to take on whatever I had to take on, and get us home."
Like some of the finest books that came out of our nation's first century and a quarter, The Which Way Tree leads us into the wild, where characters must confront both the wildness in nature and the wildness in their own nature. That which is in Sam's heart has the awesome force of a thunderstorm – or a mountain lion – and can no more be tamed than either of them can. But Elizabeth Crook has at least wrestled hers onto the page and lets us get close to it, close enough for the hairs on our arms to rise. In this remarkable novel, she's given us something wild to wonder at, and to be moved by.
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