Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
A Lover's Knot
by Suzanne Winckler
In 1829 a marital scandal shivered the timbers of the frontier state of Tennessee and sent tremors all the way to Andrew Jackson's White House. Governor Sam Houston's young bride, Eliza Allen, had abruptly left him. Because both Sam and Eliza refused to disclose the reason for the rift, it has remained a nagging mystery.
In a skillful and provocative first novel, The Raven's Bride (Doubleday, $19.95), Austinite Elizabeth Crook has written an account that even Sam Houston aficionados will find plausible. But what makes Crook's novel more than a competent historical romance is her proficiency in handling complicated themes that reach across time to reveal how much we of the twentieth century have in common with our distant predecessors -- people whom we often erroneously think of either as picturesque or as primitive prototypes of our more intricate and sophisticated selves.
The Raven's Bride is a study of the way daughters relate to their fathers, the way seduction can fail to segue into long-term commitment, and the way ambition may or may not fit into the context of marriage. Crook's novel reads like a parable of those immemorial preoccupations that just happens to have a nineteenth-century setting.
The book has slow spots -- a protracted dueling episode is the dullest -- and Crook has the irritating habit of making important points not once but twice and sometimes three times. But these are minor complaints about a story that hums along in spite of its mechanical flaws. The Raven's Bride opens with a jarring scene that has a cinematic impact hard to achieve on the printed page. Through the first chapter, you may wish to hold the book in one hand and cover your eyes with the other. The setting is a racetrack in Gallatin, Tennessee, in the spring of 1824. The flamboyant Sam Houston, then in his early thirties and dressed in his signature Indian garb, and the headstrong Eliza Allen, exhibiting a remarkable aplomb for her fourteen years, meet for the first time over the writhing body of a chestnut mare that has just broken its front legs. In this high-pitched encounter, Crook lays all the groundwork for Sam and Eliza's unsuccessful love, but she also manages something more. Anyone who has been in love will recognize in Crook's scene one of those moments of clarity that inaugurate many seductions and some long-standing relationships as well.
The Raven's Bride spans the next five years of Sam's and Eliza's lives, during which their attraction -- if not their empathy -- for one another grows into betrothal and marriage, then detonates in jealousy and estrangement. At the same time that Eliza recognizes the first twitch of attraction for Sam Houston, and suspects that he has similar feelings for her, she falls genuinely in love and has an affair with Will Tyree, a young man who is as quiet, gentle, and destitute as Sam Houston is aspiring, worldly, and successful. Her illicit meetings with Will in the Allen horse barn are triumphs in the description of adolescent intimacy. These trysts come back to devastate Eliza after she chooses to marry Sam.
That Eliza could love two such different men demonstrates her quite normal human complexity. That Sam could love one woman while being irresistibly drawn to others demonstrates his quite normal human frailty. Amid a full schedule of political wheeling and dealing, often in consort with his mentor President Andrew Jackson, he keeps up his romps with married women, and he can't put out of his mind a previous liaison he had with a Cherokee woman when he was living with the tribe.
Crook's Houston exhibits the trait -- which we think of as mainly masculine -- of keeping his love and work in separate, tidy compartments, and the most poignant parts of The Raven's Bride pivot on Eliza's outrage when she realizes that she has been kept from the political room of his life. He hasn't even told her of this intention to break away from Tennessee and make his way to Texas.
One of Crook's greatest accomplishments is that she brings narrative balance to the two principals. Such an unwieldy amount of material exists in the historical record about Sam Houston and so little is known about Eliza that a writer could easily have made a caricature of Houston and overdrawn Eliza. Crook did neither, and Eliza is a particular success. Her Eliza is a dervish of frustration -- mad at how her stifling, dispassionate father dismisses her and how he treats her mother, and furious because Houston doesn't trust her with his political aspirations.
The final melancholy enticement of The Raven's Bride is that is transcends its historical trappings. Every woman who has strained at authority that she perceives as arbitrary and every father or husband who has been puzzled or angered by the indomitable force of a woman in quest of autonomy will find rapport with the characters in The Raven's Bride. The tale of these two people and the oath they failed to keep bears a striking resemblance to the trajectory of all the vows we ourselves take and then break. Crook makes it all too clear -- and just as sad -- why Sam Houston and Eliza Allen fell in love but couldn't get along. It could have happened yesterday.