The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Helget

Posted: May 28, 2009 in Book Reviews
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The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Helget

In her 2005 memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, Nicole Helget writes long, descriptive sentences that are both rhythmic and lyrical.  She continues this technique in her debut novel, The Turtle Catcher:

What matters is after the three brothers left, after the rain stopped, after more than thirty minutes had passed since one gasp of breath had crossed Lester’s cracked lips, and after millions and millions ofpounds of water had pressed down and tried to crush his life with its weight, Lester Sutter opened his blue eyes in that black place, expanded his lungs, and found himself alive.

Primarily set in rural Minnesota, The Turtle Catcher paints a picture of the immigrant experience for one German family, surrounding the events of World War I.  The story begins in 1920, when the Richter boys force their neighbor, Lester Sutter, into Spider Lake at gunpoint.  This is because they believe Lester has violated their only sister, Liesel.  The first four chapters introduce one of the novel’s central themes: the destructive power of keeping secrets.  Liesel Richter wishes to keep hidden her two biggest secrets: a birth defect and her relationship with Lester.  When Lester—brain-damaged after years of physical abuse from his father—discovers Liesel’s deformity, he is unable to remain quiet.  Liesel then panics, calling for her brothers’ help.  She doesn’t want them to hurt Lester, but she is too ashamed of her secret to say anything.

At this point, Helget takes the reader to Bavaria, 1897, where Liesel’s mother, Magdelena Schultz, carries a secret of her own: a child (Benjamin) conceived out of wedlock, whose father happens to be the wrong religion.  This secret, and the shame it would bring her and her lover, forces Magdelena to move to America and find a proper man to marry.  In New Germany, Minnesota, Maggie is introduced to her future husband, a farmer named Wilhelm Richter.  The story follows this family from prosperity to financial ruin, solidarity to The Richter’s have three more boys and Liesel, but Maggie never forgets her lover from back home.

Love occurs in this novel with little reciprocation.  This is not for lack of want or desire; rather it’s the limitations the characters have placed on themselves for fear that their secrets will be exposed.  Maggie doesn’t want her father to find out about her Jewish lover.  Luther Richter and Pernilla Sutter don’t want their feuding fathers to know about their relationship.  Herman Richter’s battle wounds run deeper than the surface, which causes him to create distance from his sweetheart, Betty.  Liesel shies away from her brother’s war buddy, Philippe, because of her anatomical secret.

Overall, this is a story about identity.  The characters in this novel struggle with the concept of their national, personal, and—in some cases—gender identities. Which leads to feelings of shame, fear, guilt, and ultimately the need to keep their thoughts hidden.  This means the end for some, and nearly destroys one family’s namesake. The characters become haunted both figuratively and literally by the secrets they keep and the actions produced from trying to keep them hidden.

But that ends up being the strongest element of this book.  Helget creates characters that are direct, yet guarded—characters that display acts of mental fortitude, while remaining contemplative about their actions.  Reading this novel feels as if you’re getting a glimpse into the history of a real family that actually experienced these events.  While there is enough suspense from the plot to keep a reader interested, the character’s reactions and responses to conflict made me want to continue turning the page.

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