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Whitney Terrell’s ‘The Good Lieutenant’ cleverly reverses typical combat roles, story

From the first time Lt. Emma Fowler pulled on her Army uniform she felt relief. No more guessing about who she was, her place in the world, or what was expected of her.

Readers familiar with Whitney Terrell’s other two novels, “The Huntsman” and “The King of Kings County,” will know better than to expect Fowler’s relief to last. Like its predecessors, “The Good Lieutenant,” to be released June 7, raises one complex moral issue after another.

Unlike its predecessors, this third novel is mostly set in wartime Iraq, not Kansas City, though Terrell — assistant professor of English and creative writing at University of Missouri-Kansas City — includes cameos of the Country Club Plaza, Crown Center Ice Terrace and White Haven Motor Lodge.

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“The Good Lieutenant” is a war novel with its pieces scattered from training to post-explosion trauma. That is, rather than perpetuate the myths about war that are so common in film and literature — war is a great place to establish friendships; war makes a boy a man; the most exciting thing is combat — Terrell focuses on a female officer and orders events backward.

Those two strategies allow him to highlight the on-the-ground politics and day-to-day complexities of wartime decision-making. Though Fowler commands a platoon, she remains an outsider to anything resembling a boys’ club. And going backward switches up the natural order of a war story, which typically presents a firefight as the climax.

The resulting tale is a very human take on a woman bringing her own issues into a difficult situation, and who finds herself unexpectedly discussing “murder, torture, her own complicity in the same.”

In addition to feeling her way through a war, Fowler is navigating a romance with another lieutenant, Dixon Pulowski. Pulowski is part of the Asymmetric Warfare Program and doesn’t have his own platoon.

Terrell upends traditional power positions as well as gender roles. So, not only is Pulowski not a leader, he’s also more frail than Fowler, in mind and body.

Turning around traditional female/male attributes also aids Terrell’s effort to humanize combat experiences. While at first it seems strange that Fowler is described as “mannish, not fat, but full in the shoulders, very muscular in the thighs” and that Pulowski cries under pressure, it doesn’t take many pages before those descriptions are simply part of who they are as people.

While the structural choice of moving the story from the end to the beginning is useful and builds a unique type of anticipation, it takes a different sort of patience to read.

Rather than foreshadowing and flashbacks, Terrell presents the characters’ memories of events we haven’t yet seen. For instance, we learn in the first paragraph that Sgt. Beale is dead, but not how or why.

Beale’s fate is spooled out by tracing events from after his death, to his disappearance, to his pre-deployment training at Fort Riley.

By the time the reader feels invested in his character and sees him walking around being a wise guy, the reader knows what’s coming and is filled with regret and sadness — a bit like reading an account of the 1944 invasion of Normandy while already knowing the horrific death toll that would ensue.

The characters are introduced in a fast and furious way, almost as if we ought to already know who’s who. The reader is dropped into a situation in-progress and must hit the ground running along with Fowler’s platoon. The effect is exhilarating.

The first hundred pages may take some concentration, but the extra investment is appropriate to the project and the payoff is worth it.

Disclosure: Anne Kniggendorf is a former student of Whitney Terrell. Reach her at akknigg@gmail.com.

“The Good Lieutenant” by Whitney Terrell (288 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26)

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