Snapping turtles are the ugly prehistoric behemoths lumbering deep beneath the glassy, loon-speckled surface of Minnesota's lake culture. Similarly, Nicole Helget's "The Summer of Ordinary Ways," a brilliant and shocking 2005 memoir of her southern Minnesota farm family as cruel, bloody and drink-sodden, sat like a dark and rotting carcass under the golden grain and green-stalked corn of the rolling prairies. It's kismet, then, that Helget has dredged up the oft-ignored snapping turtle as the central image of her first novel, "The Turtle Catcher."
In this stunning debut, Helget weaves a tale of two World War I-era farm families caught up in tragedies both personal and global. A fully fleshed family epic with a just-right touch of magical realism pulling the themes together in the recurrent turtle metaphor, "The Turtle Catcher" is a novel of style, depth, and clarity from the most promising Minnesota writer in a generation.
"The Turtle Catcher" starts with an act of horrific brutality: The Richter brothers are drowning their neighbor, Lester Sutter, in retaliation for Lester's apparent rape of their sister, Liesl. As she did with other coarse acts so effectively in her memoir, Helget draws out the drowning details in a manner that takes the reader strikingly -- and uncomfortably -- close to the human sensation of witnessing brutality. After the deed is done, Helget rewinds the story; first, by retracing the journey that brought the Richters' parents to settle in a largely German rural community in southern Minnesota and, second, by following Liesl and her four brothers as they grow to maturity and through the dramas and tragedies that will lead to the murderous act.
Each sibling represents an archetype that is almost Homerian in scope and grandeur. Oldest son Benjamin, conceived in his mother's pre-marriage affair with a Jewish man whom her family would never accept, is like a treasured jewel his mother keeps close and secret close to her heart. Herman is the hotheaded idealist who goes to war for the family's adopted homeland, only to be permanently damaged by all he endures and commits abroad. Luther is a beautiful specimen of manhood whose appearance and virility give him license to behave as he pleases. Liesl, born a hermaphrodite, hides her gender ambiguity in a life of domestic servitude and lowered expectations. Youngest child Otto is the blank slate, the follower, the one whose birth killed his mother, and has his path indelibly carved ahead of him by the acts of his siblings.
One of the many intriguing pleasures of "The Turtle Catcher" is the strong evocation of the Minnesota German immigrant experience. The Richter family exhibits a perfect-for-Minnesota-winters German stoicism and work ethic, but also struggles with the painful rifts in family and community over divided loyalties brought on by the advent of the first of two wars against Germany. Another Helget trait that works in "The Turtle Catcher" is unromanticism; while the physical beauty of Minnesota is palpable in "The Turtle Catcher," Helget slyly reminds that frolicking outdoors on a moonlight evening will end in a body full of painful mosquito bites.
With "The Turtle Catcher," Helget exhibits the dual novel-writing chops of stylistic wordsmithing and compelling storytelling and stakes a claim for herself as a unique and exciting presence in Minnesota literature. More accessible and less artsy than Louise Erdrich, she's also more dangerous and less sentimental than Leif Enger. "The Summer of Ordinary Ways" might have been one of those memoirs that succeeds because of great subject material; with her first long-form fiction work, Helget proves it's the writer, not the subject, that's truly remarkable.
Cherie Parker blogs at thelitlife.com.