The Turtle Catcher

The Turtle Catcher

3.8 30
by Nicole Lea Helget

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In the tumultuous days after World War I, Herman Richter returns from the front to find his only sister, Liesel, allied with Lester Sutter, the "slow" son of a rival clan who spends his days expertly trapping lake turtles. Liesel has sought Lester’s friendship in the wake of her parents’ deaths and in the shadow of her own dark secret. But what begins as…  See more details below


In the tumultuous days after World War I, Herman Richter returns from the front to find his only sister, Liesel, allied with Lester Sutter, the "slow" son of a rival clan who spends his days expertly trapping lake turtles. Liesel has sought Lester’s friendship in the wake of her parents’ deaths and in the shadow of her own dark secret. But what begins as yearning for something of a human touch quickly unwinds into a shocking, suspenseful tragedy that haunts the rural town of New Germany, Minnesota, for generations.
Woven into this remarkable story are the intense, illuminating experiences of German immigrants in America during the war and the terrible choices they were forced to make in service of their new country or in honor of the old. The Turtle Catcher is a lyrical, vibrant, beautifully wrought look at a fascinating piece of American history—and the echoing dangers of family secrets.  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A rural Minnesota town struggling through change before, during and after WWI forms the background for this emotional tale of star-crossed love, vengeance and regret. Liesel, the only girl in a family of men, lives an isolated life on a farm due to her secret identity as a hermaphrodite. Her loneliness is lessened by her friendship with Lester, her mentally challenged neighbor, but when Lester discovers Liesel's secret, Liesel incites her brothers to exact a vicious revenge on him. As the novel skips back and forth through time in elliptical vignettes, Helget illustrates how tensions between the town's German residents, including Liesel, and their more assimilated neighbors eventually boil over into anger and violence as sides are chosen and families are pulled apart. Helget establishes the setting beautifully, pulling the reader immediately into the social milieu of the small town, and even if her prose can veer into preciousness, the novel is, on balance, melancholy but enjoyable. (Feb.)

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Library Journal

In this engrossing first novel, Minnesota memoirist Helget (The Summer of Ordinary Ways) draws on the legacy of her home state's late 19th-century, early 20th-century immigrant past. Yet this story, set in New Germany, MN, also contains the echoes of a haunting folktale. German native Wilhem Richter and newcomer Magdelena Schultz marry and have five children: Benjamin, Herman, Luther, Liesel, and Otto. Wilhelm prospers as a landowner/farmer and from investments in the old country; personally, however, he suffers a despairing loss while persevering under resentment from less successful neighbors. One of these neighboring families, the Sutters, has a son, Lester, and a daughter, Pernilla, who become tragically intertwined with the Richters. A good amount of this novel focuses on the unfolding destinies of several Richter family members, including Herman, Luther, and Liesel. Liesel especially carries much of the story with the depth of her needs and shame. From her doomed relationship with dim-witted Lester Sutter to her struggle to maintain a place within her own family, Liesel is a character readers won't soon forget. Strongly recommended for all public libraries.
—Maureen Neville

Kirkus Reviews
In a dark, sometimes lurid debut, misdeeds and guilt shape the conjoined fates of two feuding families in Minnesota. Death, deformity and derangement are only part of the story; this gothic first novel also ropes in incest, physical abuse and mental disability, not to mention ghosts, spirits and cross-dressing uncles. Set in New Germany, a rural, midwestern outpost with strong roots in Germany, it spans the late 1890s to the 1920s through several generations of the Richters and the Sutters. Wilhelm Richter marries recent Bavarian immigrant Maggie unaware that she is pregnant by her Jewish lover, a secret which both burdens Maggie and convinces her, when her daughter Liesel is born with a "strange organ" at her genitals, that her sin has been made flesh. Pa Sutter, meanwhile, probably beat his wife to death, may have impregnated his daughter Pernilla and certainly assaulted his son Lester badly enough to damage his brain. Maggie dies in childbirth, leaving Liesel to look after her four brothers: Herman, Benjamin, Luther and Otto. The advent of World War I divides New Germany between those still allied to their German roots and those who feel American. Sutter and his cohorts attack anti-war Richter, tar him and burn down his barn, killing Pernilla and Luther in the process. Herman enlists, loses an arm in the war and returns half-crazed by his own battlefield sins. The darkness continues with murder and self-inflicted wounds until eventually there is a chance for atonement. An energetic, oddly shaped historical, lacking polish and control.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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In the time just after the big war, when banks weren’t to be trusted and when snapper turtle stew, a cheap meal for the big families common in those days, bubbled on stovetops in farm kitchens, the three Richter brothers led Lester Sutter to the edge of Spider Lake to watch him drown through the sights of their rifles. They drove him in with the barrels of their guns and stood guard among the cattails as the water filled his boots and soaked his overalls. The rocks they’d stuffed and then stitched into his pockets sank him. Lester Sutter had earned this. Even if he wasn’t quite right in the mind, thought the brothers, he should have known better than to violate their sister. Only an hour before, Herman Richter, the middle brother, had ordered Liesel, the Richters’ only sister, to stay in the house. He directed his other brothers to hide in the grove and wait for Lester Sutter to come. He always came, Herman knew. Lester would linger at the edge of the grove until Liesel came out with the supper slops. He would slink around the oak trees. Sometimes he sat at the foot of a tree trunk and watched Liesel from afar. Sometimes he trailed back and forth, just a few feet behind her, as she bustled about the yard. When she’d whip around to face him and plant her hands on her hips, he’d turn around too, show her his back, and pretend to be studying some far-off cloud or tree. She usually smiled and returned to her work without scolding him. Liesel had always been far too permissive. Sometimes Lester approached her, and they talked. Of what, Herman had no idea. Lester Sutter was dense as pipe smoke. At times, Liesel put Lester to work hoeing in her garden or carrying heavy water pails from the well to the house. Though Liesel had insisted she didn’t mind Lester’s company, Herman did. He told her to stay away from Lester. But she hadn’t listened. And Lester got too close. Now here he was, splashing at the water’s edge, taking a few steps forward and then backing toward the shore, croaking like some amphibious animal and making this deed harder than it needed to be.
     “Get in the water, Lester,” Herman Richter yelled. His eyes were pale blue and his ears bright red. He spoke in English but with a slight German accent. The Richters’ papa, a German immigrant, spoke German but had learned English well and had insisted his children do the same.
     Lester Sutter turned to face the brothers on the shore. He worked out the meaning of the words and mouthed them with his thin and cracked lips. Then he imitated Herman Richter: “Get in ta water.”
     Herman fumed. He directed the tip of his gun back and forth between Lester’s chest and the middle of the lake. “Get in,” he said.
     “Get in,” repeated Lester. He giggled and glanced from one brother’s face to the next.
     “I will shoot you!” screamed Herman. His brothers looked at him. One told him to take it easy. “I have shot better men than this,” Herman yelled. “I will not hesitate to shoot this dog too.” But really, Herman hoped he wouldn’t have to. He hated guns and killing and blood. Why couldn’t Lester see that Herman was giving him a chance to do the dignified thing and die on his own terms?
     Sweat ran from Lester’s head into his eyes. As a boy, he had pulled out all of his eyelashes, and now none grew. The rims were perpetually red and irritated, but the whites of his eyes were always clear and not a red vein crossed them, not even when the sweat nipped at his eyeballs like the bites of hay mites. Lester knew what a gun could do. His own pa hunted with one, and Lester didn’t want to risk the blast of smoke and bullet by disobeying the men. He didn’t want to feel that blow of hot metal invade his head or heart or anywhere. The day was cloudy. Heat a man could reach out and hold was trapped between the earth and sky. The sun throbbed against the backs of the clouds, waiting for its chance to press through and ignite the day.
     Lester Sutter, standing now knee-deep in Spider Lake and wringing his hands, wasn’t an educated man. He suffered from the sort of weakness that came from years of hard blows from his pa’s fists. He didn’t understand why he was here, why these brothers, his neighbors, whom he’d always thought were friendly, were pointing guns at him. At first, he’d thought maybe they were playing a game. But now he was scared and wanted to see Liesel.
     The youngest gun-toter, Otto Richter, no more than a boy really, a boy who had fished and hunted turtles with Lester Sutter many a time, saw that he was confused. So Otto looked up from his rifle, unsquinted his aiming eyes, and yelled over the long steel barrel to his old friend, “He said to get in the water, Lester.”
     Lester waved to Otto, then pointed to himself and said, “It’s me. Lester.”
     “I know,” said Otto.
     The boy was shushed by Herman and told to get his gun back up. Otto rested the thick wood of it against his bony shoulder. His long bangs hung nearly into his eyes.
     “Do not talk to him,” said Herman. He took short steps on the shoreline toward Lester, closing the distance between them to fewer than a few steps. He pointed the gun from Lester to the middle of the lake again. “Get in, Lester,” he said. “We don’t have all day.”
     Lester understood finally and backed up. Dark fingers of lake water curled around his thighs and bade them come in.

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