It’s been almost thirty years since Larry McMurtry asked the barbed question, “Why are there still cows to be milked and chickens to be fed in every other Texas book that comes along?” Texas literature has since embraced other, more cosmopolitan concerns, and yet the western is still popular, not just on bestseller lists, but also with the literary tastemakers who continue to nominate them for regional and national awards.
For all their acrobatic storytelling and epic structure, today’s westerns rarely challenge the central tropes that have defined the genre from the beginning: a reliance on character types—white hats versus blacks, cynical old mossbacks with hidden hearts of gold—and romantic adventure plots delivering an escape from modern life. More revisionist versions either introduce anachronistically enlightened protagonists or embrace the “spaghetti western” end of the spectrum to peddle in violence porn at high noon rather than human complexity.
At first glance, Austin writer Elizabeth Crook’s new novel, The Which Way Tree (out this week from Little, Brown), set in the Texas Hill Country during the outbreak of the Civil War, appears to be just another entry in this crowded canon. The premise feels heavily indebted to Charles Portis’s True Grit: a stubborn young girl out for revenge convinces an oddball cast of characters to help her blaze a trail to retribution.
Samantha, the book’s scrappy, mixed-race heroine, is on a mission to track the panther that brutally killed her mother, a former slave, and left her own face horribly scarred. Joined by a charming Tejano, a preacher with an aging tracking dog, and her white half-brother, Benjamin, Samantha is herself pursued by an aggrieved Confederate soldier (or “Sasesh” in the book’s historical ventriloquism) about as one-dimensionally mean as a black hat can be. As an added menace, the panther they are tracking may not be a regular old ambush predator but the infamous El Demonio de Dos Dedos, rumored to have wreaked havoc all the way to the Mexican border and back.
Yet as this deceptively simple novel progresses, it becomes clear that Crook is interested in more than a classic western pursuit narrative. Characters who initially appear as clichés—the noble Mexican, the earnest preacher—are revealed to have unexpected motives and backstories. Quests for revenge or profit or just plain Christian paternalism turn out to be flawed attempts at redemption and human connection.
Samantha is the rare black female protagonist of a western, and her race is central to the novel’s conflict: her mother’s skin bore the whip scars from when she was a slave, just as Samantha’s face was mutilated by the panther. Her hunt is about more than just killing the animal that took her mother’s life: it’s a version in miniature of the Civil War happening at the novel’s margins. At one point, Preacher Dob says, “Vengeance belongs to the Lord, Samantha.” Her reply: “Only if he can beat me to it.”
Despite this allegorical twist, The Which Way Tree doesn’t try to impose a contemporary sensibility onto the characters’ world views—none of them profess particularly nuanced political sentiments. The novel also refuses to romanticize life in frontier Texas or titillate with violence. Rather, it casts an unsparing eye on the Hobbesian reality of that time and place—Samantha and her half-brother Benjamin live in conditions that include “pig shat on the floor and chicken shat on the bed.” It’s easy to see how two orphans would happily leave behind their domestic life to take part in a quixotic panther hunt when, as Benjamin says, “I knew what I would find at the end of a ride back home.”
What’s more difficult to understand, however, is Crook’s decision to narrate the book from Benjamin’s point-of-view, via a series of letters to a circuit judge after the Civil War. This has the unfortunate effect of slackening some of the tension—we know from the beginning that Benjamin and Samantha survive their adventure. It also seems at odds with the book’s thematic thrust, since it forces readers to view Samantha through the perspective of a white man. Though Samantha is the book’s most dynamic character, we see her at such a remove that her thoughts and motivations are shrouded in mystery. For a character shouldering the moral weight of the novel, she often comes off—at least in Benjamin’s telling—as single-minded and selfish.
Looked at another way, however, Samantha’s resistance to interpretation may be part of the point. Perhaps Crook is insisting that Samantha doesn’t owe anyone access to her inner life, nor should she feel the need to charm, pander, or even justify her actions. And that refusal to bend to our culture’s bias towards “likable” female characters is its own powerful subversion.
A few elements of The Which Way Tree feel contrived or too on-the-nose—the panther-tracking dog who just happens to live near the orphans’ house, or Benjamin’s obsession with Ahab’s search for the white whale in Moby Dick. But those minor off notes aside, Crook’s slim, intimate novel illustrates how, at their best, historical westerns provide insight into human nature tested by the sort of extreme conditions that rarely crop up in contemporary American settings. Maybe that’s why, even today, cows still sometimes need to be milked and chickens to be fed in Texas letters.
Abilene native Mary Helen Specht is the author of the novel Migratory Animals and an associate professor of creative writing at St. Edwards University in Austin.