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
by Bob Tutt
Young Eliza Allen Houston altered the course of history when she walked out on Sam Houston, her husband of two months.
Houston felt so scandalized that he abandoned his campaign for re-election as governor of Tennessee that spring of 1829 and sought refuge with his friends, the Cherokees.
Neither Eliza nor Houston ever revealed the full story behind their breakup. Barring discovery of some heretofore-unknown letters or diaries, the reasons almost certainly will remain a mystery.
But mysteries invite writers of historical novels to fill in the blanks. That is what Elizabeth Crook of Austin does in her first novel, The Raven's Bride (Doubleday, $19.95), her story of how the marriage of Houston and Eliza came crashing down. She sidesteps all the theories offered in the past.
The simplest theory always has been that Eliza's father, wealthy landowner John Allen, pushed his 19-year-old daughter into what seemed a promising marriage with the up-and-coming governor, then 35, and that she became dreadfully unhappy.
Other theories held that Houston was appalled to learn Eliza was in love with another man; that Eliza was repelled by an old Indian war wound in Houston's thigh or groin that continued to run; that she was shocked by Houston's use of Indian sexual practices; and even that Houston engineered the split-up so he would have a pretext to leave Tennessee and go west to promote a scheme to get Texas away from Mexico.
When Crook uses her fictional skills to unravel the mystery, the reasons lie in the characters' complex personalities.
Crook explains that she had wanted to write about a woman overlooked or misrepresented by history.
"Eliza was perfect," she said, "because she had had an extreme effect on history and yet remained a mystery to historians. I set out to solve the mystery. I didn't know whether to write biography, fiction or history. The first draft I came up with was a mess because it wasn't any one of these."
She is convinced the historical integrity of her efforts was redeemed when she wrote an article for the scholarly Southwestern Historical Quarterly summarizing her exhaustive research on the breakup of the marriage.
"After I had done that article, I felt completely vindicated in taking whatever liberties I needed for the sake of story in the novel," said the 31-year-old Crook, who studied writing under Max Apple at Rice University.
In a note at the beginning of her novel, she writes, "I do not claim to have written the true account of Sam Houston and Eliza Allen, but I believe I have come close to the truth."
This is not a paradox, Crook said, "because I think I have approached the mystery differently from others. Most have tried to figure out who was at fault, to vindicate one or the other. Anybody who has been in a relationship knows that's usually not easy to do. I didn't try to do that. I wanted to understand Houston and Eliza."
Too often, she said, Eliza has been reduced "to this child bride or some sort of vapid personality. There was no historical documentation to portray her that way. She obviously was a woman of great intensity.
"Before her death she requested that all likenesses of her be destroyed, that anything she had ever signed be burned and that her grave be unmarked. This compelling bid for anonymity is not something a vapid person does.
"I think she was probably a very private woman, and all of her life people had been prying into this unhappiness of hers. In the end, she sort of pulled the wool over all our eyes."
About halfway through her research, Crook said, she began to feel ambivalent about her probing. She began to think that Houston and Eliza "were entitled to their secret and their privacy, and I got nervous that I was going to solve the mystery. In the end, I can honestly say I don't know what the true Eliza was like, and I'm sort of glad I don't know."
The Eliza in The Raven's Bride is an intense young woman who has discovered she never can please her stern, dour father, never obtain from him the love and openness she craved. Willful, perverse and angry, she strives, not to cater to power, but to capture it. And that can prove frustrating.
After a wild gallop on one of her father's racehorses, Crook writes, Eliza felt that the animal "had mocked her. She had thought herself equal to his power and found she was only a victim of it, carried along as far as it would take her and then spurned."
She is a woman who in self-defense "resorted to composure."
This Eliza marries Houston, not at her father's behest, but because she is attracted by the strength she perceives in him and because she thinks he can give her honesty and intimacy.
Has she possibly created an Eliza who is more a woman of the 20th century than the 19th century? Decidedly not, Crook maintains.
"We have this image of people in the past being less complicated than we are, but it's not so," she said.
"They had the same feelings we do today. If anyone were to say to me that Eliza is too much of a feminist, I would reply that what woman who was not a feminist would have walked out on the governor without giving an explanation or a reason. She evidently was just unhappy with him."
The egotistic, flamboyant Houston in Crook's pages mirrors the man who emerges in unvarnished histories. He feels certain a "Conducting Providence" guides him toward a special destiny and fires his wild visions and ambitions. At the same time self-doubts torment him.
"I do not prefer humble women," he confides. "Serenity bores me."
Crook believes Houston owed his monumental success as a womanizer to powerful feelings of insecurity. In trying to combat these feelings, she said, "he made dramatic bids for affection and affirmation from women and usually achieved it."
"I love Sam Houston," Crook affirmed. "As a character he was so complicated and endearing. Even when you're disgusted with him, you like the man. If he had been more perfect, I think he might have been less interesting. But I feel he is a hero to admire from a distance, not to embrace. I feel that if I had been Eliza, I would have left him, too."