June 24, 2009

The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Lea Helget

I read Helgut’s prize winning, The Summer of Ordinary Ways : A Memoir, when it was release in ’05, and snatched up her debut fiction, as soon as I saw it.

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. This story, set in New Germany, MN, contains the echoes of a haunting folktale.

German native Wilhem Richter and newcomer Magdelena Schultz marry and have five children: four boys and a girl, Liesel who 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, she 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, 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 small town Minnesota. Liesel is a character readers won't soon forget.

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