The Turtle Catcher
It opens with a shocking scene in 1920s Minnesota, in which the title character, Lester Sutter, a mentally handicapped man skilled at catching snapping turtles for meat, is being forced by the three Richter brothers to drown himself because they believe he raped their sister. The narrative then jumps back and forth in time, revealing how the characters arrived at this dramatic moment.
Maggie, the boys’ mother, had emigrated from the old country, concealing from her new husband Wilhelm that she is already pregnant with another man’s baby. After a later child, Liesel, is born a hermaphrodite, Maggie sees it as a sign that her family is cursed. In the meantime, Wilhelm has bought up surrounding farms when times were bad, creating hostility among his neighbors. Worse, he refuses to let his sons join the Army and fight against their German cousins in the Great War. The neighbors take revenge, which sets off a string of events leading to Liesel’s accusation of rape. But does Lester really drown? There is a touch of magical realism to the conclusion.
Still darker, more violent events deepen the somber tone of this Gothic novel. Liesel is probably the most memorable character, but while the others are well drawn and had believable motives, I didn’t particularly like them. The book’s setting is vivid and the historical elements well done. Helget makes the wartime conflict between Anglo and German immigrants understandable in ways I never got out of a history textbook. If you are a fan of nonlinear storytelling and plots that tread on the dark side of the line, you will enjoy this first novel.