The Turtle Warrior by Mary Relindes Ellis, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Turtle Warrior

The Turtle Warrior

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by Mary Relindes Ellis

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The Turtle Warrior is the story of the Lucas family, who live in a beautiful and remote part of Wisconsin inhabited by working-class European immigrants and the Ojibwe. By 1967 the Lucas farm has fallen into disrepair, thanks to the hard drinking of John Lucas, who brutalizes his wife and two sons. When the eldest, James, escapes by enlisting to fight in


The Turtle Warrior is the story of the Lucas family, who live in a beautiful and remote part of Wisconsin inhabited by working-class European immigrants and the Ojibwe. By 1967 the Lucas farm has fallen into disrepair, thanks to the hard drinking of John Lucas, who brutalizes his wife and two sons. When the eldest, James, escapes by enlisting to fight in Vietnam, he leaves young Bill alone to protect his mother with only his own will and the spirit of his brother to guide him. Beautifully written and deeply felt, The Turtle Warrior takes readers from the heartland of America to the battlefields of World War II and Vietnam weaving a haunting tale of an unforgettable world where the physical and spiritual, the past and the present, merge.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
This powerful novel will affect you deeply and linger long. —Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees

Ellis has produced a passionate, heartfelt book that heralds what I hope will be a long career as a writer. —Chicago Tribune

Strong, bold... Astonishing and eloquent. —Pat Conroy
The Barnes & Noble Review
A remarkably assured and moving first novel, The Turtle Warrior marks the exciting debut of Wisconsin writer Mary Relindes Ellis. Set in the brutally cold and hard northern Wisconsin, the area Ellis herself is from, The Turtle Warrior tells the story of two neighboring farms and their broken families over two generations. The Lucases have two struggling boys -- the younger deeply sensitive and keenly attuned to nature and animals, the older teenager hardened by his role protecting his mentally crumbling mother from his abusive alcoholic father. The neighboring farm is home to a childless couple who periodically take in the two boys. But these surrogate children cannot fill the void left by the couple's inability to create a family or heal the scars left by their experiences in WWII. When the oldest Lucas boy enlists for service in Vietnam, the two families are broken apart irrevocably, each tormented by feelings of guilt. But it's the youngest boy who suffers most, his own tormented fate eclipsed in the eyes of those still grieving for his brother. It's a layered and complex story told from the interweaving perspectives of all the characters -- each gets a chance to narrate every moment over 20 years. It's an ambitious technique, one that makes for a sweeping story that still feels intimate. The harsh Wisconsin heartland in all its brutality and hopeful possibility creates an atmospheric backdrop for this wonderful family saga of healing and redemption.
Publishers Weekly
This sensitive, melancholic first novel by Midwestern short story writer Ellis probes the troubled heart of a Wisconsin farm family. John Lucas is a subsistence farmer and an abusive alcoholic feared by his wife and his children, James and Bill. In 1967, 18-year-old Jimmy, who slicks his hair into a pompadour and plays pranks on gentle eight-year-old Bill, enlists in the Marines, intending, in part, to prove something to the brutal father who'd lied about his own military service. But when Jimmy goes missing in action, he abandons to their fate those he had always protected-his mother, Claire, and vulnerable Bill, who must bear the savage brunt of John's self-loathing and failure as a farmer. Claire is an educated woman whose marriage breaks her spirit; though Bill spends time with a kind, childless couple, Ernie and Rosemary Morriseau, he is damaged physically and emotionally. From alternating points of view, Ellis reveals the details of decades of family life (from 1967 to 2000) in the Lucas and Morriseau households-including the meeting, courtship and marriage of each couple after World War II. The upshot is that Jimmy's affecting saga gets lost amid all the history, though Jimmy does return from the dead to tell his war story ("I have feelings too, which is weird"). Bill's tale is also dark; though he believes that the turtle shell shield he makes will protect him, he grows into a man haunted by his past. Though she lays on the pathos a bit too thick, Ellis's debut is affecting and sometimes gorgeously poetic. (Jan. 5) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this first novel from Wisconsin writer Ellis, Jimmy and Bill Lucas struggle in the shadow of their alcoholic father. Jimmy reacts by enlisting in the Vietnam War (where he dies), while young Bill and his mother are left behind to suffer the patriarch's abuse. The only haven Bill has is a kindly (and, coincidentally, childless) couple who lives next door. As the years pass, his father dies, but Bill begins to fall into the old man's destructive habits. Ellis relies on rumination and flashbacks from the various participants, resulting in all-too-familiar material. There's not much for the characters to do but muddle through their misery while the novel slowly coasts to its happy-ending halt; even Mr. Lucas, the "heavy" of the novel, is rather underdrawn. Some authors navigate this emotional inertness well (Russell Banks and Frederick Busch come to mind), but readers may find that this story requires a bit more plot movement to succeed. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/03.]-Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A well-written, if somewhat dark, novel. It's 1967 on a northern Wisconsin farm, and 8-year-old Billy Lucas watches as his 17-year-old brother, Jimmy, shoots a snapping turtle in the jaw. The ultrasensitive child tries to save the wounded animal, an action that becomes a metaphor throughout the book. The childless couple next door, Ernie and Rosemary Morriseau, treat the neglected boys as their own. Ernie is half Native American and deemed inferior by Mr. Lucas and other farmers in the area. When Jimmy enlists and is sent to Vietnam, Ernie, a World War II veteran, feels guilty for not having stopped him. Once Jimmy is listed as MIA, his spirit returns to the farm where he is spotted by several of the characters. Billy withdraws into a silent, morose teenager; his father drinks behind the barn, hiding bottles of liquor under the soil. His mother walks the farm in her dirty housecoat and curlers talking to herself. And the Morriseaus stop communicating with them. When John Lucas dies, the adult Billy takes on his father's abusive and alcoholic persona, and Ernie tries to save him as he was unable to save his brother. This lyrically written novel is filled with descriptions of farming and has themes of alcoholism, parental abuse, prejudice against Native Americans, and coming-of-age problems.-Pat Bender, The Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A troubled midwestern family tries to overcome the ravages of a violently abusive father and husband. In spite of its Swedish name, Olina, Wisconsin is one of the least exotic places in the Upper Midwest-a flat, windswept, almost barren landscape of subsistence farms carved out of stubborn, rocky soil. John and Claire Lucas left Milwaukee to live on a farm in Olina, lured by cheap prices and the prospect of independence. John was a WWII vet with a taste for booze and a nasty temper; Claire was a young schoolteacher who gave up her career for marriage. But John was a poor farmer who gave himself more and more deeply over to drink, whereas Claire found the solitude of Olina (and life with John) oppressive. Claire took solace in her two sons, James and Bill, who protected her (physically as well as emotionally) from her husband's violent rages, but the boys themselves had to look beyond home for their own peace. James, tragically, enlisted in the Marines in 1967, partly to escape from his troubled family and partly to show up his father (who had lied about his WWII combat record), while Bill spent more and more with Ernie and Rosemary Morriseau, a childless couple who lived on a neighboring farm. After James is killed in Vietnam, Bill tries to protect Claire from John-and suffers terrible abuse at his hands. In spite of this, Bill manages to grow up relatively happy and well-adjusted, and eventually marries his college sweetheart and finds work as a biologist, but he is unable to have children because of the injuries his father inflicted on him. His wife wants to adopt, but Bill fears the consequences of family life. Can Bill understand he is not his father? Can he forgive the man who nearlyruined his life? Elegantly written and sharply observed, but sensitive to a fault: a well-crafted debut that suffers from a bit too much feeling. Agent: Marly Rusoff/Marly Rusoff Literary

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.76(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

October 2000

HE STOOD NEXT TO HIS yard light and looked at his watch. It was 8:00 P.M., and he did not want to wait a moment longer, to cause them worry. He turned the light switch on and then off, waiting for a few seconds before doing it again: on and off. It was a signal to his younger neighbor that all was well at the Morriseau farm. A nightly ritual.

It was dark and cold, but rather than go into the house, he leaned against the light post. Autumn again. It was the season in which the memories of his father were most visceral. His father had been dead for fifty years. Ernie was now seventy-six. Autumn made him more aware of his mortality, yet his chest swelled with excitement, with the change arousing his senses. The spice and funk of wet bark and wet leaves, the papery fertility of dried grass and the astringency of pine. The leaves like varying shades of fire. The first October storm that released them like smoke. The surprising loveliness of bare branches reaching upward as though the sky had pulled their shirts off to get them ready for bed.

Autumn briefly transcended the truth of his age and allowed him to dwell in the memory of being a treasured late-in-life child. He had loved and respected his mother and father; had been the child of, and witness to, an extraordinary marriage. In trying to be what he thought was a good son, a citizen of the world, he had made choices that hurt his parents and caused them worry and pain, some of them inevitable but others selfishly ill considered. He hadn’t paid attention. He only half listened in the evenings when his father told stories and anecdotes while they did chores. Stories of his father’s life on the reservation, stories of why the moon was full once a month, why birds go south, the creation of butterflies. He understood and listened to his parents speak in what should have been his first language, Ojibwe. Ernie knew only a half dozen words, as his generation was not allowed to speak their native language in school. If he had listened more closely and learned, he might have solved the riddle that his father unwittingly left him with and that troubled him for years.

They had been deer hunting that day and had stopped to drink some water and eat their packed sandwiches.

“Spring,” his father commented out of the blue, looking up at the treetops, “is the season of women and birth. Fall is the season of men and hunting.”

Ernie was sixteen then and did not think to question its meaning, but it was odd enough for him to remember.

His father suffered a stroke two weeks after Ernie came home from fighting in the Pacific in 1944. Ernie had gotten married just before returning to Olina. Rather than have a honeymoon, he and his wife were suddenly faced with the responsibility of his family’s subsistence farm and the care of his aging parents as well. In those long days of work there never seemed to be time to discuss much of anything except what was necessary. He was hesitant to do so anyway; afraid that he might upset the old man by forcing him to speak when it was so difficult for his father to ask for the simplest needs and wants. His wife’s nursing of his father and her patience with the daily physical therapy required appeared to have nearly restored him. Just when it seemed his father had regained all of his speech and could walk without help, he suffered a fatal stroke one night in his sleep.

Ernie told his mother, not long before she died two years later, what his father had said, in the hopes that she would know the intent of the words. Her usually good-humored face folded in confusion.

“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what he meant.”

He would have given anything to talk to his father again. To ask the older man if he had really understood what he had said: that women belonged to life and that men belonged to death and that men killed in the fall what women gave birth to in the spring. Even if it was not literally true, the metaphor was a terrifying one.

He put his bare hands in his coat pockets and looked up at the night sky with its many stars and constellations. He shivered. Peace did not come with old age. The new millennium meant nothing to him. He and his wife had gone to bed early on New Year’s Eve, ignoring the national fear of being bombed, of terrorism striking anywhere and everywhere. They did not, as some of their neighbors did, buy cases of water, load up on canned goods, buy huge power generators, or turn their basement into a bunker. They slept, knowing that whatever would happen would happen regardless of what they did.

His right hand fingered the handkerchief in his pocket. If he had learned something profound in his life, it was this: that to ask a question could be the most rebellious of acts and the most necessary. That allowing words to go unspoken could cause not only harm to oneself but harm to another.

He tasted it every day in his mouth. As though he had bitten down on a prickly ash berry. The sudden infusion of wild citrus flavor before it numbed his gums and tongue. Not even water seemed to wash it away.


What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
This powerful novel will affect you deeply and linger long. —Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees

Ellis has produced a passionate, heartfelt book that heralds what I hope will be a long career as a writer. —Chicago Tribune

Strong, bold... Astonishing and eloquent. —Pat Conroy

Meet the Author

Mary Relindes Ellis’s stories have been anthologized in Uncommon Waters: Women Write About Fishing; Bless Me, Father: Stories of Catholic Childhood; The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror; and Gifts of the Wild: A Woman’s Book of Adventure.

Visit Mary Relindes Ellis's website at

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Turtle Warrior 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The sample from this book is just author acknowlegements. You dont get one pg of the actual book.....I guess you just have to wing it.....
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading has been a hobby all my life, and this is one of the best books I have ever read. The author offers a fresh style of writing with wonderfully detailed graphic descriptions. Her metaphors are fresh and memorable. I hated to finish the novel and anxiously await her next one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Turtle Warrior' depicts painful times in the lives of fundamentally good people and how the choice of their lives' meaning may make the difference between surviving or perishing. It is an important book for the lucky among us to catch a glimpse of how unlucky people slip into their circumstances. If ever a book illustrated poisonous silence, this is it. Such important life themes are accompanied by an interesting format and agile prose that takes on the personality of each character portrayed. While this book was painful to read, its quality is obvious. It has been a long time since I have read anything that isn't (yet) on the classics shelf with similar importance and skill. This was a selection for my book club, and varied as our opinions usually are, no one could deny this book's caliber.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I chose 'The Turtle Warrior' as our official book club selection this month as I look for books that give a new voice to literature, enlighten, and open our world to new views and cultures. I know nothing of the northern part of the United States, yet after reading this book that is so close to nature, I could not just see it but feel it and breath it. I also realized that there were a lot of similarities to East Texas of where I live and was amazed to hear that the cover photo was taken by an East Texas photographer. Hauntingly dark, but told beautifully, Mary Relindes Ellis I just learned has a background in poetry with an English degree. I am not surprised, her words show an economy that make every word count. I perceive reading a book as to taking a photograph When the book is finished and the photo is developed. As you look into the image, it may seem a touch seem a touch out of focus. But as we just had the author come and visit some of my chapters I liken that visit to having my camera lens focused so my memory of the 'picture' has a clarity I hadn't seen before. She is a beautiful writer as well as reader, not all authors know how to read a book but her eloquence, grace, and intelligence make this one book that I highly reccommend. Tiara wearing and Book sharing, Kathy L. Patrick Founder of The Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, the largest 'meeting and discussing' book club in America!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Recently read The Turtle Warrior and thought it was one of the most memorable, painful but redemptive novels I've ever read. I have not had personal experience similar that in the book, but there was a genuine resonance, can't say how or why. Very enriching and satisfying.
Guest More than 1 year ago
We live in the midst of them, and sometimes it is just a matter of exchanging one battle for another. Having survived the rages of his alcoholic father, Jimmy thinks he's got enough luck to survive Vietnam. And he nearly does. The effects of this one death on those left behind are movingly handled by Ellis. Her style is smooth and her story a reminder that, for all our supposed evolution, we haven't yet learned how not to kill in large conflicts, or even at the small, one-on-one emotional level.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ellis writes an intensely emotional story, enhanced by the use of multiple first person narratives. Technically, that is usually difficult for any author, for it can make the plot line somewhat disjointed. To some extent, this has happened here. The reader does indeed have to focus carefully on the frequent shifts in narrative. The dustjacket quotes a reviewer who compares Ellis to the great American author of the early 20th century, Willa Catha. Indeed, there are similarities. Though whereas Catha tended to write about the windswept Great Plains, Ellis gives us a diorama spanning 40 years of the bleak hardscrabble ambience of rural Wisconsin. Personally, what I found most interesting was precisely that depiction of Wisconsin and its ethnic German communities. The book gives an insight, presumably accurate, into a milieu that few readers outside Wisconsin might be familiar with.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stunning first novel. A family saga, this book is comparable to 'Plainsong'. Should be a best seller.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it's powerfully written (puts me in mind of Bast--d Out of Carolina). On the other, hasn't the 'Abusive Parent' storyline been done to death already? Anyway, if you're looking to read something while you're laying in bed with a sinus infection and a dead cat that you don't want to take outside because it's cold and miserable and you'd really just rather suck down another bottle of NyQuil and die on the spot ... this is the perfect book for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ellis depicts the characters with realism and love. I was so swept away by the heartbreak and triumph in this book that I finished The Turtle Warrior in one night. It is a glorious read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been an avid reader (fiction especially) for forty years and am particularly fond of Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates, Jon Hassler, Philip Roth, and Louise Erdrich. At first the wonderfully evocative cover photo on The Turtle Warrior caught my eye. (Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.) Then I read the book. Ellis is a wonderful writer. I can't remember when a novel got to me like The Turtle Warrior did. I'm convinced that if I were to drive to Wisconsin to visit the setting of the story, I would run into Ernie and Rosemary and Bill and Claire and the spirit of Jimmy and if I walked through the fields on the Lucas farm barefooted, I'd probably cut my feet on the shards of glass left from Ernie's plowing of the whiskey bottles. Ellis makes these people and scenes real. This is her first novel; she must keep writing! The Turtle Warrior will draw well-deserved comparisons to Louise Erdrich and Tim O'Brien and Wally Lamb. Ellis's themes are similar to those found in Peace Like a River, but her novel is a notch above Enger's. An extremely moving novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. Written superbly. Could not put it down as I learned more and more about each character. Truly enjoyed the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The oldest brother James, his younger brother Billy, their horrible father John, and their damaged mother Claire are the nuclear family members on this generation of the Lucas family tree. Together with the gifts of the Wisconsin wilderness, neighbors Ernie and Rosemary Morriseau provide an alchemy that transforms the surviving Lucas¿s from lost to found. The author, Mary Ellis, orchestrates a bittersweet chant of spiritual might as she helps us confront the horrors of life in the Lucas family, the grace of life in the natural world, and the joy of life in its surprising victories. Love and life survive and sometimes emerge victorious, in spite of the awful odds against surviving ¿ physically or spiritually ¿ in this broken world. To this end, the readers owe Ms. Ellis a great debt for her masterful storytelling, eloquent empathy, and passionate portrayal of the complex intricacies of lives struggling with, dying from, and occasionally living through the reoccurring themes of emotional deprivation and abuse that all-too-frequently occur in families. Ms. Ellis weaves a powerful story that leaves the reader hopeful, in spite of the horrors that fill the battles of this family, this country (in WWII and the Vietnam War), and the world. Like many `recovering Catholics¿ Ms. Ellis avoids church-like reassurances, while simultaneously providing for us a parallel world of supernatural ¿ if inexplicable ¿ comforts. Both worlds ¿ the one the Church offers and the one Ellis substitutes for its offerings ¿ require a `faith¿ to accept. Readers who are wholly in the world of the Church, or wholly in the world of atheism, will likely find the offering unsatisfying. Regardless, it speaks of a faith in the natural world that is not dependent on beliefs to confirm its existence. Life is both the author of and the kin to nature. Life wounds AND heals. Life in this faith requires no adherence to a creed; it simply asserts itself in the record of surprising and awe-inspiring survival. It is this larger story that Mary Relindes Ellis tells through the lives of our heroes, heroines, and villains. It is a story that inspires and uplifts the spirit of the reader. It is a story worth reading and digesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book looks weird but i have nit read it so i do not know if it is weird.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He wakes up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Post your info here.