- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
About seven or so years ago, something happened to Austin author Elizabeth Crook’s family that planted the seed for her fifth novel, “The Which Way Tree.”
They were out in the Hill Country celebrating the birthday of her daughter, who was turning 6. At some point in the day, her then-14-year-old son and a friend decided to go to a nearby cabin to go camping. They took off about noon … and never reached the cabin.
“It was the most traumatic night of my life,” Crook said. What should have been a fun kid’s birthday party ended with all of the parents driving up and down the road for nine hours trying to figure out what happened to these kids.
At some point, as Crook puts it in an afterword to the novel, “Sometime after midnight the chief deputy of Bandera and two companions searching with him on the ground radioed that he had seen an enormous mountain lion … trailing, quiet and ghostlike, through the canyon into which the boys had disappeared.”
Eventually, a helicopter spotted the boys around a campfire in a ravine. They were fine. After the boys were reunited with their folks, a deputy happened to say to Crook, “I don’t mean to scare you, ma’am, but when I got there that cat had its eyes on your boys.”
Nothing happened, but it got Crook thinking. It got her mildly obsessed, in fact.
“For about a year after that, I found myself Googling mountain lion attacks,” Crook said. “They would attack a pony or something, and I was reading about it.
Blend that with Crook’s penchant for 19th-century Texas and you have “The Which Way Tree,” a tale of a biracial girl named Samantha Shreve who, after being horribly disfigured by a mountain lion in the Hill Country, vows to hunt down and kill the cat that also took the life of her mother, a former slave. And by vows, I mean becomes completely obsessed with killing it.
Told in first-person and epistolary form to a court of law by her older half-brother, Ben, “The Which Way Tree” packs an epic feel into 272 pages, stretching from the chaos of post-bellum Texas to the comparative civility of the early 20th century.
Starring the two children at the center of the story, the novel brings into its quest a Mexican fellow named Pacheco on the run from a horse theft charge, a former Confederate soldier named Clarence Hanlin whose fate becomes tied in with the children’s, Hanlin’s uncle Preacher Dob and Dob’s panther-tracking dog.
It’s a ripping good tale of vengeance, and any and all resemblances to “Moby-Dick” are, well, not initially intentional, but. …
“In my research,” Crook said, “I started reading about the men who were in prison in the Hill Country at that time, and they had books that they read, ‘Moby-Dick,’ then known as ‘The Whale.’ When I saw that, it hit me that it is kind of the same story, an impassioned pursuit at great cost. I don’t think I would have thought of it otherwise.”
And there was no way Crook wasn’t going to set it in the Hill Country after the Civil War — there aren’t too many places in history quite like then and there.
“There was just an enormous amount of chaos going on in Texas after the war,” Crook said. “There were (Native American) raids on settlements, there were German settlers loyal to the Union, a lot of them were trying to get to Mexico, there was a Union blockade, there was a lot going on.”
Mix all this together and you have a book that Crook said flowed freely once she got the nut of the story in place.
“Once I got Ben’s voice, it came very quickly,” she said. “There was no grand plan; I got to the end of each chapter wondering what was going to happen next.”
Crook said she usually avoids first-person. “In first-person, the narrative can come off as very self-absorbed, and I don’t like what that does to the story. In this case, I kind of like it because Benjamin is telling a story about his sister under court order. This is a war crimes trial, and there’s an earnestness there that I really love.”
Crook paused for a moment. “The other thing I grew to like about first-person for this story is that you don’t have to put in as much descriptive detail,” she said. “When a character says they made a fire, that character isn’t going to describe the fire. It simplifies things.”
So we have a fast-moving yet epic story about a young woman against nature, set in a chaotic Texas, complete with a kindly man on the run, a Confederate soldier who becomes an enemy of sorts, an old man and a trusty dog: If you think this sounds awfully cinematic, well, you’d be right.
Robert Duvall has already picked up the film option on “The Which Way Tree.” Indeed, the script, co-written by Crook and Stephen Harrigan, is already pretty well completed, Crook said.
“Duvall happened to see a very early draft and got interested,” Crook said. “He was the third person to read the manuscript, and when he optioned it he asked who should write the script. I wanted Stephen Harrigan; he said he didn’t have time but he would write it with me. So he showed me how to download (script software) Final Draft, and we started. I learned a lot; the collaborative thing is very new to me.”
Also: Avoid mountain lions.