Nicole Helget: The Turtle Catcher

September 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0547248004 – Mariner Books – paperback – $13.95 (also available as an e-book)

I found this book, written by an author I had never heard of before, by doing something very old fashioned: browsing in a bookstore.  There are many forms of discovery, but finding a book you want to read in a store is still a great pleasure.  And when you take it home and start reading it, and find out you made a lucky choice to read an exceptionally fine novel, that is a true and deeply rewarding experience.

I was surprised to learn that The Turtle Catcher is Nicole Helget’s first novel – she doesn’t write like a first novelist at all.  The opening of this novel is absolutely perfect, and is beautifully written, setting the tone for a complicated, very often painful, but also engrossing story.  Helget’s novel is mystical and magical, but these moments of “magical realism” where she enters another plane counterpoint brilliantly with the almost plainspoken story she has to tell about immigrant families in a German-American community in rural Minnesota in the early 20th century.  The book is set in the now little discussed period just before, during and after World War I, a time that was very complicated for communities of recently arrived immigrants from the old country, with Germany now the enemy of their new homeland.  The tensions within the town provide a taut backdrop for Helget’s for the focus of her story.

The author weaves together the lives of two families living on adjoining farms in the small town of New Germany, Minnesota.  Liesel Richter and Lester Sutter are at the core of the book, along with their fathers and deeply suffering mothers, and what happens to Lester, told brilliantly and painfully in the opening scene of the book is the capstone to a long, rich story of families and communities, hidden wounds and deep suffering transformed into a kind of stoic transcendence Helget’s characters embrace, almost because it is all they are capable of doing in the face of such pain.

In The Turtle Catcher, Nicole Helget has created a multi-layered family story whose characters inhabit (and illustrate for readers) a specific place and time, but as with all great novels, through their story, they are transformed into something deeply moving and powerful.  I really loved this novel, and will read it again, I am sure.

I wanted to talk to Nicole about the emotional content of the book, how she came to create this novel (it started with a short story), and discuss some of the complexities of her really wonderfully drawn characters.  I think we succeeded in exploring this writer’s work in a really interesting conversation I hope will encourage readers to seek this novel out and read it for themselves.  I do think Nicole Helget is a terrific writer, someone whose work I am deeply gratified to have discovered.

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