Set in the time during and right after the Civil War, THE WHICH WAY TREE immediately engages the reader with the voice of Texan Benjamin Shreve, 17 years old as we begin the novel, but younger in the tale he tells us.
Let me correct myself—his purpose in sharing his tale is to provide testimony to a judge. A murder trial has begun, but the circuit judge is only beginning the proceedings and encourages Benjamin to write down what he knows of possible criminal named Clarence Hanlin. In three months, the judge intends resume the trial.
Benjamin has read few books in his lifetime, but one of them was Moby-Dick, so he has command of the English language and comes to enjoy sending letters. As a bonus, the judge takes an interest in the boy and begins sending him writing materials and other gifts.
Benjamin’s parents are dead. He scratches out a hardscrabble living doing woodwork and other odd jobs. As if life were not hard enough, he must take care of his half sister Samantha (“Sam”) and this is no easy task.
Sam is one of the most cantankerous, unobliging, and stubborn characters ever met in fiction or life. But we must have some sympathy for the girl because her face was badly mauled by a panther, not just any panther, but one legendary throughout the Texas Hill Country. This same panther killed Sam’s mother, and like Ahab chasing the white whale, she is obsessed with finding and killing it. Benjamin has little choice but to fall in with her quest, though he more or less thinks she is tilting at windmills.
Next in the story is Zechariah—an old one-eyed hound, equally as legendary as the panther. Although Zechariah is a genius at tracking the panther, his owner, Preacher Dob, is initially dead-set against loaning him out. Soon, though, both are involved in the hunt. Lending much gallantry to what becomes a panther posse is a Tejano outlaw named Pacheco.
Misfortune and bad luck ensue, due especially to interactions with Preacher Dob’s nephew, Clarence Hanlin—a despicable fellow who nurses a deep hatred for Sam. You see, she shot off his finger.
Suspenseful up until the very end, Benjamin’s descriptions and interpretations of what went down during the panther hunt are by turns wry, raw, colorful and endearing. Readers who enjoy Larry McMurtry’s western novels will appreciate The Which Way Tree. Also, because of the time period and setting, I was reminded of News of the World by Paulette Jiles. In the Acknowledgements, I learned that actor Robert Duvall read and enjoyed an early draft of the novel, so perhaps this roiling tale will hit the big screen.
Thank goodness for talented authors who write about the bygone days of the American West. My fascination with those times continues to flourish because of their literary skills.
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.