Merrimon Book Reviews

Snapping Turtle

The siege of New Ulm, Minn.:
 Painting by Henry August Schwabe depicting an attack on New Ulm during the Dakota War of 1862

Twn City Tractor advertising from The Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company


From Merrimon Book Reviews
The Turtle Catcher
The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Helget
by Nicole Helget

A story of outcasts, broken friendships and history

From 1897 Germany to 1920 New Germany, Minnesota, THE TURTLE CATCHER tells a story of outcasts, friendships, and retribution.   In the first chapters, set in 1920 New Germany, Minnesota, the three Richter brothers take justice into their own hands when their sister Liesl cries out against Lester but remains silent, protecting the secret she carries in her body from being discovered.  An outcast due to her hidden deformity, Liesl and the brain-damaged Lester Sutter had formed a friendship that has transcended their individual isolation.  From this one brutal moment, Nicole Helget looks backward in time to all the events that led to this heinous crime.  Alongside the main thread of the Richter-Sutter feud, Nicole Helget creates haunting broader resonances of once friendships that end in historic retribution from the relationship of the Sioux and the Minnesota residents to the German and Scandinavian immigrants.  Within this context, THE TURTLE CATCHER tells the love story of Magdalena Schultz, or Maggie, and her daughter Liesl.  Pregnant and in love with a Jewish man, Maggie immigrates to America rather than tell her father who blames the Jews for his fall in status.  Likewise, Liesl falls for Lester, the son of Harald Sutter, the man Richter blames for his downfall.  Sutter equally blames Richter for his misfortune.  The parallels between Maggie and her daughter's stories are not slavish copies of one another but rather haunt with the similarities and differences, creating a broader picture of the movement of a family and indeed women within a family through generations.

THE TURTLE CATCHER clearly is not a novel that will appeal to all readers.  Several brutal scenes from a vicious murder and horrific scene of childbirth to self-mutilation make the reader recoil in a revulsion that is often visceral.  THE TURTLE CATCHER does not present a linear easy-to-follow plot but rather builds through a careful layering of sometimes seemingly disparate vignettes joined together by their thematic resonances rather than by a strict chronology.  Throughout most of the novel, Nicole Helget presents readers with a grim portrait of a cast of severely flawed characters.   Historic events only exaggerate some of the more unsettling aspects of her characters.  Just when a reader thinks things can't possibly get worse, they do.  THE TURTLE CATCHER, however, will appeal to other readers precisely for those literary qualities and the way in which the author combines history and personal history to examine the outcast and the dynamics of unthinkable retribution.

THE TURTLE CATCHER takes an unflinching look into the small town of New Germany, Minnesota around World War I and inside a family whose secrets are hidden from plain sight.  One sees the sins of the parents passed down, not only to sons and daughters but also the ramifications of personal histories and a broader historic movement combining to create within individuals the worst parts of themselves.  Juxtaposed to these characters and the horrific events, the doctor's daughter stands as an outsider, but an outsider whose compassion and understanding contrasts with the spiraling, overwhelming darkness.  In the end, Nicole Helget paints a complex multi-layered portrait of all those moments that lead up to the initial scene at Spider Lake.  Just when the reader feels the weight of hopelessness for outcasts and for alliances turned into enemies, Nicole Helget offers a glimmer of hope, unveiling a hope that, like the horrific personal history of the Richters and Sutters, might remain hidden to outsiders except through the eyes of myth, history expanded through time and through the vision of literature.  THE TURTLE CATCHER is not a novel to be read lightly but rather one that challenges the reader with its themes and literary vision. THE TURTLE CATCHER is a novel of rich beauty, a literary beauty that haunts the soul with its look into history and family.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (February 2009)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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