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
Crook's novel shines a light on Sam Houston and Eliza Allen
by Susan Hanson
For months, Elizabeth Crook had been torn between hope and resignation. Just when it seemed that she would never find a publisher for her book, The Raven's Bride, she received an offer from Texas Monthly Press. And then, just when she began to celebrate, her publishing house closed its doors.
Although there was no longer anything to feel festive about, Crook decided to keep her plans to travel to England with her parents. "I had non-refundable tickets," she says, "so when the deal fell through, I still needed to go to London."
Crook smiles when she thinks about an event that occurred during that trip.
She was standing in the kitchen of her parents' London flat, the picture of dejection, she says. "My dad and I had been to see a trial at Old Bailey and had just come home," says Crook. "I was eating pork and beans out of the can, just in the depths of depression because no one wanted my book."
And then the telephone rang.
Bill Crook offered no explanation when she handed his daughter the receiver, but as she remembers it, he had a bemused expression on his face.
"Here was this lovely voice on the phone," Crook says. "She was very congratulatory and very affirming." "She," in this case, was none other than Doubleday editor Jacqueline Onassis, who was calling Crook from New York to say that she had just read The Raven's Bride and that Doubleday was interested in publishing the book.
Once again, Elizabeth Crook had reason to celebrate -- but this time, there would be no last minute disappointment.
Indeed, since signing with Doubleday, Crook has found herself in a rather enviable position as a writer. She has not only sold the movie rights to The Raven's Bride, but she is now under contract to Doubleday for a second book, which is scheduled for publication next year.
"It was not an ego-building experience," Crook says of her initiation to the publishing world, "but it's done."
And the result, readers are learning, is a captivating look at one of the most baffling relationships in American history -- the courtship and marriage of Sam Houston and his young bride Eliza Allen.
A work of historical fiction, The Raven's Bride is an attempt to reconstruct the couple's tumultuous relationship as it might have been. In the process, Crook offers her readers two characters who are at times charming, at times scandalous, but always compellingly real.
Released just this month, The Raven's Bride has already earned high praise for its 31-year-old author. According to Publishers Weekly, "Crook's intricate first novel engagingly details the abrupt dissolution of Sam Houston's 11-week marriage to Eliza Allen . . . The couple's emotional turmoil is maintained at high pitch by the interaction of a rich cast of characters . . . This well-researched historical romance manages to capture some towering personalities at a pivotal moment in history."
And from Kirkus Reviews, "This is Crook's highly colored, ambitious attempt to penetrate the lifelong silences of both parties (Houston and Allen) concerning what Crook views as a doomed marriage of an irresistible force and an immovable spirit . . . Crook sets her tale of battling Titans in Olympic chiaroscurro . . . In all, a rousing first novel, fired by theatrical flashes and clever, soundly-researched speculations."
How does Crook explain her choice of subjects for this, her first published work? "My father was reading The Raven and mentioned to me that Eliza, Houston's first wife, was an enigma." says Crook. "She's a mystery to historians, and a lot of that is because she wanted to be.
"She made this astonishing bid for anonymity," Crook says. "She requested that her papers be destroyed, along with all likenesses of herself, and that her grave be unmarked.
"To this day," says Crook, "she has been lost to history. When historians or novelists have dealt with her, they've usually been more interested in writing about Sam Houston or in vindicating him in the whole affair. They've reduced her to a vapid personality or a child.
"I've found that there is not any evidence at all for that kind of portrayal," Crook says. "Eliza was a woman of great intensity and great intelligence, and certainly of great temperament."
Intrigued by the mystery of Eliza Allen, Elizabeth Crook began the long process of finding and assembling what pieces there were. Her search for clues, which began in about 1984, eventually took her out of the library and into the courthouses and countryside of Texas and Tennessee.
"I went to Tennessee and looked for some of the more obscure data and to get a sense of her hometown," says Crook. "From there on, it was just a matter of putting all the little pieces together. Mostly they were pieces of speculation and theory. There's just almost no evidence as to what happened between Sam and Eliza."
What is known is that in 1929, Sam Houston, the 36-year-old governor of Tennessee, married 20-year-old Eliza Allen, the daughter of a prominent landowner. Known for his drinking and womanizing, as well as for his flamboyant dress, Houston was nevertheless a man of considerable ambition, and at the time of his marriage, he had his political sights set on Texas.
In fact, after just 11 days of marriage, Houston abandoned his wife and the governorship of Tennessee, set out for Texas, and, while passing through the Arkansas Territory, took a Cherokee woman as his second wife.
It was what she knew of this sketchy historical record that hooked Elizabeth Crook and sent her off in search of the woman Houston left behind. What she subsequently learned was published under the title "The Marriage and the Mystery," carried in the July 1990 issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.
Beyond the barest of facts, however, Crook would have to reconstruct the events of history, drawing on her own instincts and, perhaps, her own secret hopes for Eliza.
"She may be very far from the original, but I don't think so," says Crook, who admits that her goals changed somewhat during the writing of the book. "In the beginning I started out to solve the mystery, but somewhere along the way I found myself being loyal to the secret.
"It would've been a shame if I had solved it," Crook says. "They were entitled to their privacy. It really is a relief that I can say I don't know what happened between Sam and Eliza."
Noting that The Raven's Bride is a blend of "fact and fabrication," Crook says that she feels comfortable writing fiction in the framework of history.
"You feel like you're learning something in addition to being entertaining," she says. "It's more difficult because you have to do a lot of research -- into architecture, furniture, clothing. But you have a framework and a backdrop. With contemporary fiction, you don't have any props."
Even within that framework, Crook says, she significantly altered the novel with each revision she made. "I began writing the same year I began my research," she says. "It was an attempt, and a bad one, a burdened one. This book has been liberated several times over."
Thinking that the novel was ready for publication, Crook says she signed on with an agent who believed in her writing "more than he believed in the book."
"He basically exhausted all the publishing houses in New York," she says. "Nobody wanted the book." Those who expressed an interest in Crook's work did so with one small request -- that she rewrite the book.
"Initially I tried to rewrite to suit every editor," Crook admits, "but that agent essentially ran out of editors to send it to."
Ultimately, however, the book began making the rounds again, and this time it found a home at Texas Monthly Press.
"Fortunately, the person who read it there was Stephen Harrigan," says Crook. "All the rejections I had made me feel the book wasn't any good, but Texas Monthly made me an offer.
"I rewrote the book just by talking with Steve. I felt the characters were embryonic. The history had pushed up center stage instead of the characters, who were sort of hunkered down somewhere behind the curtains.
"The book wasn't daring enough," Crook admits. "I had been too bound by historical fact, too afraid to take liberties. What Steve did was convince me that it was the story that matters. Then I was able to divest it of all those encumbering details and let the story shine.
"What Steve said he liked about Eliza was her perverse side," says Crook. "That was the side I liked, too, but I was ashamed. I went back and redrew her with all her oddities and liked her much better."
By the time she finished her revisions, Crook was convinced that the book had a future after all. Not only was she pleased with the novel, but so was Texas Monthly Press, which had scheduled it for release in 1989.
But then the bombshell hit.
"Texas Monthly Press went into financial decline and scrapped the schedule," Crook recalls. This proved to be a disheartening period for her, but in time, Texas Monthly began regaining its strength and announced that The Raven's Bride would be published after all.
With the book itself complete, all that remained was to select a cover. "I started flipping through art books and found Andrew Wyeth's Four Poster," Crook says. At once she knew that she wanted her cover to convey the same feeling as that painting -- a scene that was inviting and seductive, and yet subtle.
"We had all the work ready to go," Crook says, "and then Texas Monthly was purchased by Gulf Publishing, which doesn't do any fiction." In short, for the second time, Elizabeth Crook found herself without a publisher -- and this time, it seemed final.
It was at this point that longtime friend Bill Moyers, who had read and liked the book, called to check on its progress.
"I told him, 'Everything's terrible'," says Crook, "and he said he wanted to send it to Mrs. Onassis." Moyers followed through on his promise, and as he had hoped, Jackie Onassis liked the book as well. After reading it in a mere two days, she telephoned Crook in London to express her interest and to arrange a meeting in New York.
Because of the work that Crook had already done with Stephen Harrigan, The Raven's Bride required no editing before going to press at Doubleday. In a sense then, Crook admits, she has yet to work with Jackie Onassis, but she says that she is looking forward to their work on her novel in progress.
"I really expect it to be a good experience," she says. "She's very professional, and she makes it easy to relate to her as an editor."
Crook describes her second book, a novel about the mustang trade, as "historical rather than biographical."
"That gives me a lot more freedom to orchestrate," she says. "I don't develop loyalties this way to real people who are always looking over my shoulder. This way there aren't any ghosts to worry about. They're all my people."
Although The Raven's Bride is Crook's first published work, it comes out of what is actually a lifelong interest in writing.
"I started writing bad poetry when I was probably four or five," Crook says with a laugh. "I also kept journals, stacks and stacks of them. I just wrote private things for myself."
The daughter of Bill and Eleanor Crook of San Marcos, Elizabeth spent her early childhood in San Marcos before moving with her family to Washington, D.C., where her father was director of VISTA under Lyndon Johnson, and later to Australia, where her father served as United States Ambassador.
After completing junior high and high school in San Marcos, Crook attended Baylor University and Rice University, where she studied creative writing under Max Apple and earned a B.A. in English in 1982. She currently lives in Austin.