The Turtle Catcher
by Nicole Helget
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Turtle Catcher is set in the small farming community of New Germany, Minnesota, during the years before, during and after World War I. Most of the members of the Richter family have something to hide. Magdalena Schultz was keeping a secret from Wilhelm Richter the day she married him, but Wilhelm kept secrets from his wife as toxic as the ones she kept from him. The novel centers around their daughter, Liesel, whose secret is the most dramatic: she is not shaped like most girls. But her brother Herman returns from the war with a secret just as shaming, if less unusual.
When World War I broke out, German immigrants like the Richter family were torn between loyalty to their new homeland and the old. Most had relatives still living in Germany and hoped the United States would remain neutral. But many of their neighbors hoped the opposite; some joined the armed forces in Canada so they could fight against Germany, widely viewed as the aggressor. Suspicion of German immigrants led to harshly punitive laws against the use of the German language and, in some cases, to persecution of German-Americans.
The violence abroad begins to infect the Richter family's community long before the U.S. enters the war. Festering grievances between neighbors erupt into the open as reports of the war in Europe make violence at home seem both permissible and appropriate. Overseas, Liesel's wounded brother Hermann is horrified by his experiences. "Many bad things I have done," he writes. "I will only do right things for the rest of my life." But this conviction, steeped in the damaged psyche he brings home, proves dangerous.
Helget's prose reflects her characters, uneducated though often intelligent, impulsive and passionate though sometimes thoughtful and reflective. A touch of magical realism allows The Turtle Catcher to end with a measure of happiness that would not otherwise suit an almost relentlessly somber story. (2009, 288 words)
More about The Turtle Catcher from Powell's Books
Other novels about Americans in conflict with each other during World War I:
Will's War by Janice Woods Windle (2002), about a Texas man put on trial for treason in 1917, as suspicion against German immigrants reaches fever pitch. More info
Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal (2007), about a seventeen-year-old Boston girl imprisoned for having a “social disease” during the war.
Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson (1998), about a young black man from New Orleans who enlists rather than face a corrupt justice system after he accidentally kills two lawmen. More info
Nonfiction about German-Americans and conflicts within the U.S. during World War I:
Tenderness and Turmoil: Letters from an American Immigrant to Her German Mother During World War I by Minne Elisabeth Allen (1998).
Uncle Sam Wants You by Christopher Capozzola (2008), about the crushing of dissent in the U.S. during World War I. More info
An introduction to the experience of German-Americans during WWI on the Immigration website
A bit of history about New Germany, Minnesota, at How Did New Germany Get Its Name?
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