Award-winning author Elizabeth Crook takes readers though the Texas frontier in ‘The Madstone’

The book centers around a young mother fleeing from her dangerous husband and the young man who chooses to help her along the way.

By Kristen CabreraNovember 6, 2023 2:54 pm, , ,

The Texas frontier has inspired many authors to use it as more than just a backdrop. The rugged landscape can become something of its own character in tales like “Lonesome Dove.”

That tradition echoes across a new novel from award-winning Texas author Elizabeth Crook – “The Madstone.” 

Crook spoke with the Standard about the characters in her book and growing up in Texas. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Well, I think a lot of folks who read your previous novel, they’re going to recognize one of the lead characters here, Benjamin Shreve. And I love how you tell this story as almost, what, is it like a letter to one of the other characters in the book? Really interesting approach. Why did you choose to tell the story that way?

Elizabeth Crook: Well, because I had used Benjamin’s voice writing it in a testimony to a judge in “The Which Way Tree.” And this book carries on. I just missed Benjamin when I finished writing that book. And so I wanted to carry on in his voice and have another story, give another adventure for him and have him, you know, give him the opportunity to fall in love for the first time.

He’s 19-years-old. And so I wanted to do it, you know, through his eyes. I wanted to do it in first person. And so, yes, he’s writing a letter to the little boy who’s on the trip to be read when the boy is older and he conveys a lot of information that he thinks this child will want to know.

So, Ben, as you say, he’s 19. The year’s 1868, he’s working as a carpenter just north of San Antonio, a Hill Country town called Comfort. And there’s there’s a misunderstanding along the way. Ben winds up sharing his wagon with… how would you describe Dickie Bell? He’s sort of a treasure hunter, right?

Yes. And I should say first, though, that this story does standalone from “The Which Way Tree,” so you don’t have to have read “The Which Way Tree” to read this. It’s a completely separate adventure.

But Dickie Bell is, yes, he’s a treasure hunter. And Benjamin comes into contact with him when the stagecoach goes off and leaves him in Comfort. And Dickie is very upset about this. He’s left this very mysterious, very important bag on the stage, and he needs to catch up with it. So he hires Benjamin to help him try to catch up with the stage.

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And it’s through that process that a love story ultimately starts to bloom. I mean, there’s a lot of adventure between those two moments. But ultimately, he comes in contact with a woman who is traveling with with her son, and she’s trying to get away from her husband, which is a really important part of the book.

So when they do catch up with the stagecoach, she’s been stranded. It’s been robbed and is stranded and she was another passenger on the stagecoach. She has her four-year-old son with her – Tot, the person to whom Benjamin is writing this to be read later – and she’s pregnant. And so now Benjamin ends up with with her and the child and Dickie Bell and the driver of the stagecoach in the wagon, trying to get them to the next town.

And it turns out that she is in flight and in real danger because her husband has been a member of this gang. And this was a real gang in East Texas called the Swamp Fox Gang. Cullen Montgomery Baker was the one who led it. And you know, at the close of the Civil War, there were a lot of people who weren’t ready to lose that fight. And so they basically hid out in the swamps and just terrorized the freedmen and freedwomen and people of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was the sort of arm of the government that had come down to try to enforce the new laws that were being imposed during Reconstruction.

And so she has informed to the Freedman’s Bureau on where her husband and this gang was hiding out in the swamps in East Texas. And now they’re after her because this brought the law down on them, and so she has to get out of Texas.

And so the whole journey is, you know, getting to the next town, the next day. There’s always a reason why he can’t just let her continue on. And so she needs to get all the way to Indianola, which of course, was a port on the Texas coast at the time. It was completely wiped out by hurricanes later on, but it was second only to Galveston in size at that time. And she needs to catch a ship and get away to New Orleans.

I love the detail. You know, Indianola is a great example. I love the way that you incorporate a lot of Texas history into this book. And it’s the little things that a lot of folks will recognize and be like, “oh, wait a minute, she’s a native Texan.” Are you, in fact, from Texas originally?

Yes, yes. My parents were living in Nacogdoches when I was born, and then we moved to San Marcos, Texas, where I grew up. We had a couple of years away when my dad was with the Johnson administration, and then we were back in San Marcos. And so I, you know, went to public schools in San Marcos.

And then, you know, I never looked outside Texas for college. I went to Baylor because my parents had gone to Baylor and then I transferred from Baylor and graduated from Rice and ended up, you know, staying in Texas. I mean, I guess I’ve never moved.

I want to ask you about some of the characters who appear in this book. Native Americans in Texas, Black Texans are brought up here. Could you say something about your choices when you were imagining these characters?

Right. You know, you have to have really different people with different agendas, I think, to have the right kind of conflict and growth and bonding and, you know, the various things that happen when when disparate people are thrown together on a single journey – that kind of, you know, formation of a family bond happens along the way with this book.

So one of the characters is George, and George is a Black Seminole. The history of the Black Seminoles is just so fascinating. I did not know anything about it until I started reading. And then I just couldn’t stop reading this. There’s some great books, but basically the Black Seminoles were basically descended from enslaved people who had escaped enslavement and come to Florida and worked and began to live with the Seminole Indians.

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So they sort of all traveled together and a bunch of them decided “we’re just going to hike down and were leaving this reservation.” So they loaded up. They went 900 miles to Mexico, settled in Mexico, and were hired by the Mexican government to protect the border from the incursion of a lot of outlaws coming across from Texas into Mexico. And there were also the Comanches that were also committing raids and things on the border to the Mexicans and hired the Black Seminoles to fight whoever was, you know, coming across their border.

And so he has been doing that and now he is on a journey of his own when he runs into, you know, Benjamin and for various reasons, ends up traveling with them. So the travelers then are Benjamin, Nell, Nell’s little boy and Dickie Bell and George.

Elizabeth Crook is the recipient of the Texas Writer Award, given at the upcoming Texas Book Festival, taking place in downtown Austin Nov. 11-12.

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