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Publication: Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Date: John Freeman
Date: August 25, 2001

In a provocative essay published in Harper's magazine this spring, Russell Banks argued that white American novelists were neglecting our country's most crucial issues by not writing about race.

As if in answer to Banks' challenge, debut novelist Whitney Terrell takes up this fraught subject in "The Huntsman," a robust, dramatic tale about a city convulsed by the racial implications of a young white woman's murder.

As the novel opens, a fisherman finds the body of Clarissa Sayers floating in the Mississippi River. She's the daughter of a powerful Kansas City judge. A citywide manhunt quickly ensues for her lover, a black man named Booker Short, who was seen driving her Corvette the night before her death.

Beginning with this lurid, pulse-quickening story, the novel circles back to reveal how Clarissa's death was not just a freak occurrence, but the climax of a long and tortured relationship between the races in Kansas City. Terrell develops his tale in brilliantly crafted flashbacks, the best of which recounts Booker's life.

Raised on his grandfather's Oklahoma farm, Booker is scarred by loss. His mother abandoned him as a boy. His best friend -- a white man who taught Booker to grow marijuana -- betrayed him when they were arrested together.

Terrell subtly scripts Booker's evolution into a kind of huntsman, one who seeks payback for racial indignities. Skipping parole, Booker comes to Kansas City in search of a man named Mercury Chapman. Years ago, Booker's grandfather had saved the man's life. The old man also claims Chapman abetted a lynching during World War II. Tracking down Chapman in his luxurious suburban home, Booker shames the older man into reparations: Chapman gives Booker a job at a hunting-club lodge, where he meets and falls in love with Clarissa Sayers.

She is as much an outsider as Booker: "He would see her face, white indolent, framed by a boy's haircut, appearing among the fattened bodies of the old men like the physical incarnation of some principle that their entire property and clubhouse had been designed to refute. She hunted from the sloughs and flooded trees along the creek, eschewing the wood blinds where the members sat listening to Kansas football games and eating daintily from tins of Spam, and he was silently pleased when he ferried members back from the fields empty-handed to find her sitting on a stool by the boat shed, lazily plucking her limit of drakes."

Mysteries of race and class

Terrell skillfully employs the conventions of noir fiction, its obsessions with betrayal and violence, to explore themes of race and class. The mystery at the heart of this novel is not so much who killed Clarissa Sayers -- although that is a compelling one -- but whether Kansas City, and America, can escape its bloody, slave-owning past. All characters in this story, from Judge Sayers and his hunting cronies to Booker and the detective who stalks him, find themselves yoked to this historical burden.

Terrell employs the rich vocabulary of Melville, and writes long, muscular sentences reminiscent of Faulkner -- but his style is powerfully his own. Landscape is his obsession, and he lingers lyrically on the terrain that surrounds Kansas City, especially the river. The Mississippi snakes through this novel, "bestial ... sphinxlike yet alive." Its littered banks mirror the city's social cancers.

As "The Huntsman" careens toward its dramatic finale, with heavy rain driving the river to flood, Terrell keeps returning to his central question: can we find redemption from our past? The novel's ending suggests so.