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April 15, 2009

Book Notes - Nicole Helget ("The Turtle Catcher")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Once again, my friend Jodi Chromey alerted me to a wonderful novel, Nicole Helget's The Turtle Catcher, that otherwise would have slipped under my radar. In her review at Minnesota Reads, Chromey marveled at the book's "magical mix of stoicism and magic," and I immediately added it to my reading list. The novel is an engrossing tale of immigration and assimilation in early 1900's Minnesota.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"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."

In her own words, here is Nicole Helget's Book Notes essay for her novel, The Turtle Catcher:

Let Me Go, by Cake (for Frieda)

Frieda is a feminist before the term feminism found meaning. She feels confined by her role as wife and mother. Her brain is a firecracker. She has ideas, good ones, but, because of the time, has to defer to her husband, who isn’t nearly as capable or strong as she. She’s a far better example of how to be a “man” for her sons than her husband, and in the end, she leaves her husband to try to change the world. So, this song is for her. When she moves, she swings her arms instead of her hips. She moves her mouth instead of her lips.

Love to Lay You Down, By Conway Twitty (for Pernilla)

In a different way than Frieda, Pernilla is a feminist, too. She’s sexy, unabashedly so in a time in which women were supposed to be demure and faithful. She has her heart set on Luther. She’s blunt, inarticulate, so like Conway Twitty, she’d not talk of poems and promises either. She’s just all about laying down Luther. I just love that Twitty performed this song at the time of the onset of the “Reagan Revolution,” a movement of conservatism and decency. This song feels wholly indecent for its time, like Pernilla.

Lions of the Kalahari, by Sam Roberts (for Commissioner Patterson)

Commissioner Patterson, the character in my book, came to me because my daughter, Isabella was reading The Lions of Tsavo while I was writing The Turtle Catcher. It’s a memoir about John Patterson building a railroad in Africa and having to ward off man-eating lions who ate something like 130 Indian and African workers. The movie, “The Ghost and Darkness” is based on these events. And while the movie character is a humble soul, the real Patterson was not this way. He represents himself as an imperialistic blowhard. A racist. So I poke fun at him in my book, but try to make him sympathetic, too, by giving him a wife whom he truly loved and was taken from him. This song by Sam Roberts is my gift to him. “If I die, won’t you please feed me, to the lions of the Kalahari.”

Crawling Back to You, by Tom Petty (for Liesel and Lester)

This is my favorite Petty tune from the most underrated album, Wildflowers. It’s sort of a sad album, which may explain why I’m so attracted and moved by it and why it didn’t catch on in the mainstream so well as others. I remember walking outside in the heat of Minnesota’s July to this song, Crawling Back to You, while I was 8 months pregnant, unemployed, separated from my husband, trying to finish this book, The Turtle Catcher, and just feeling so, so low and lonely. “Crawling Back to You” is a weird (is that a recorder or piccolo riff in the beginning?), slow, full of pain tune. I remember stretching out my arms to the sun and just surrendering to the heat and ache. And then I went home and gave all that emotion to Lester and Liesel, and let them literally and metaphorically “crawl” back to each other. People’ve asked me why my work is so dark and gloomy, and I’ve found myself in the position to have to defend that tone. I think because I’m a mother, I have to try and keep my mood up in the house, with the kids, and so I unload this doom and gloom on my literary work. Life is sad. And the more you make yourself aware of the pain in the world, the harder it is, for an artist, for me anyway, to write about happiness, redemption, forgiveness, and hope. I try to incorporate some of these sentiments, but having those elements be the crux of my work doesn’t feel honest to me. Perhaps Petty was in this type of mood while working on Wildflowers. I’d like to ask him.

In the Pines, as sung by Kurt Cobain (for Liesel and Lester)

I love Cobain’s rendition of this traditional song, written originally by a slave, I think. It’s a mournful tune, a lament about distrust, loneliness, and lying. If Lester had a more cynical way, or the articulation to express to Liesel his thoughts, maybe he’d sing this to her. “You caused me to weep/ And you caused me to moan/ You caused me to leave my home…/ In the pines, in the pines/ where the sun don’t ever shine/ I shiver the whole night through.” And of course there’s the fact that Lester is confined to a cold purgatory because of Liesel’s lie. This song’s nearly perfect.

Girl from the North Country, by Bob Dylan (for Betty)

I’ve lived in Minnesota for all of my life. It’s a seasonal place with the hottest hots and coldest colds, Aurora Borealis and swarms of disease-ridden mosquitoes. Setting is its own character in my work. So, for those reasons, let me make a nod to Bob Dylan, a Minnesotan, and dedicate this tune to my character Betty, a wholesome, good, caring, north-country girl. Men, I think, like to idealize this kind of girl, the kind they imagine bringing home to mom. This is the type of girl they think about when they’re away, at war maybe or in prison. But this is also the kind of girl they’re likely to leave. That’s the way I interpret the song and that’s the story of much of Betty’s life. “If you’re traveling in the north country fair/Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline/Remember me to one who lives there/She once was a true love of mine.”

Down in the River to Pray, as sung by Allison Krauss (for Wilhelm)

I chose this song not because I or any of my characters are religious, but because I and my characters, particularly Wilhelm, find spirit or transcendence in nature and because Allison Kraus’ voice is one of the finest and purest of our time. Also, somehow, her voice seems to capture the time period and tone of my book, haunting, creepy, ironic. This song was featured in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” by the Coen Brothers (also Minnesotans). In a way, I guess, here’s another nod to the arts up here where it’s so cold we all just sit in the house all winter dreaming up crazy stories.

Hurt, as sung by Johnny Cash (for Liesel)

This one’s for Liesel, full of pain, full sting, full of holes. Trying to kill it all away, but remembering everything. And then letting down and making hurt the one person who loved her. That’s a bitch to live with. And live with it she must. As the writer of this book and inventor of the characters and circumstances, it’d have been so easy to give Liesel a big, grand redemptive moment in The Turtle Catcher where she makes up for the horrible thing she does to Lester, but I just couldn’t do it. No way. This idea of a heroic journey toward redemption might be the biggest load of bullshit American writers have forced upon the literary arts. Some acts are simply not redeemable. Liesel's act upon Lester is such the sort. I hear that type of regret, the kind that comes from acts unforgivable and irredeemable, in Cash's voice as he sings this song. He's so old, wizened, and vulnerable here in “Hurt,” living with all the awful things he's done but still carrying on and wondering if that's enough. Just carrying on and suffering are the best atonements we get.

Heart of Gold, by Neil Young (for Lester)

I wanna live/ I wanna give/ I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold/ Oh. Aren’t we all? This one’s for Lester, The Turtle Catcher’s sacrificial lamb and my most honest effort at writing a character who represents pure good and sincere innocence. I base all my characters on people I know. Lester’s the only character I have ever completely invented, and I had to invent him because he’s only motivated by care and kindness. I don’t know anyone like that.

Kom Susser Tod (Come Sweet Death) (J. S. Bach)

This could definitely be soundtrack music for the film of The Turtle Catcher.

Nicole Helget and The Turtle Catcher links:

the author's website

Minnesota Reads review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
MinnPost review
Monkeyreadblog review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Paul Pioneer Press review

3-Minute Egg profile of the author
Minnesota Reads interview with the author
Showcase Minnesota interview with the author
Twin Cities Live interview with the author
video interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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