Book review: Lucky Turtle tells a romantic story of coming of age — and heartbreak

Early in Bill Rohrbach’s novel “Lucky Turtle,” narrator and heroine Cindra Zoeller takes the reader through the circumstances in which she finds herself in 1997. For her role in a yet-to-be-determined crime, Cindra—16 as the novel begins—is offered the opportunity to abandon a system Prisons for camp in Montana. Rohrbach explains that we get this filtering through the perception of an older Cintra, who recognizes a systemic inequality in the system that is more lenient with her—blond and white—than with the other defendants, who are of Puerto Rican descent.

Soon, Cindra arrives at Camp Challenge, a space run by a former child star and populated by a cast of characters ranging from friendly to hostile to abusive. The story of a young New England woman sent thousands of miles away to find herself would suffice for a detailed and compelling narration on its own, but that’s not really what the Maine Rohrbach is after here.

Part of that comes from the contrast between the young Cindra and the decades-old version that tells this story. But Rohrbach also allows elements from Cindra’s post-Camp Challenge life into the narrative, including a relatively early reference that turns out to presage many later developments. “Not long after that, I had a therapist who said I liked the Camp Challenge limits available,” Cindra mused. “All I said was that I love to wear all over gray.”

Potential readers interested in heading into this cold novel may want to stop here; One of “Lucky Turtle”‘s many charming features is the way Roorbach turns a relatively straightforward account of coming of age into something more temporally complex. In other words, venturing into this novel without really knowing where this is going has its charm.

However, the reference to a wizard isn’t the last glimpse we get of Sandra’s adult life, and about a third of the way through the novel, Rohrbach changes the structure, along with Sandra’s growing romance with Lucky, a young camp worker, with her life decades later. , where she finds herself living an unfulfilled life in the suburbs with Walter, the controlling man who can’t be kept away from Lucky.

Roorbach follows Cindra from there on two different timelines. Her position in the Camp Challenge soon becomes unsustainable. While there are people who genuinely care among her peers and camp staff, there is also a certain character whose abuse of power – literally abused – has been revealed in a chilling fashion. Cindra and Lucky find themselves in love and stop working, which eventually leads to their small family forming with a few other people who join them in seclusion.

From the flash forward, we know this won’t last. But the question of what exactly happened hovers above the proceedings, adding to the tension over when Lucky and Cindra’s novel will end. (There is also an ongoing question about how Walter ranks in all of this.) Seeing exactly how these seemingly disparate elements come together – which they do – is another pleasure that comes from reading this novel. However, she is not the only one; There’s also joy that can come from lyric clips like these, where you watch Cindra Lucky hunting a deer:

‘But I felt the tension of the little deer, and tensing myself, and some monstrous corners in me, and then, without warning, the thud sounded. The animal collapsed on its front knees, and then to one side, the spear carried half upright–a beautiful creature built of mountains, valleys, streams, and meadows. Wildflowers and sky – turned into winds. ”

There are also a few gestures of knowledge from Rohrbach that feel a little meta—including when a character argues that James Michener’s “Hawaii,” which Cindra reads when she lives with Lucky, is irreparably flawed and that “we should stick to our own stories.” Given that Lucky’s own background is one of the running threads in the novel—Cindra first thinks it’s Crow, but his family history is more complex than that—Roorbach seems to have his own opinions on the subject. (It is worth noting that many readers of sensitivity attribute the book’s acknowledgments.)

“Lucky Turtle” is an expansive and sympathetic novel, covering large parts of the country and grappling with core issues. (Pandemic and racist militias also play a role.) Sometimes, it can feel overly satiated; Cindra and Lucky are both deeply felt characters, while a few of the supporting characters are drawn more mysteriously. But in the end, Rohrbach wrote a poignant novel that speaks to this quality organically, and uses it to explore major themes along the way.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Signal,” “Reel,” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, Star Tribune and others.


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