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A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
When sixteen-year-old Cindra Zoeller is sent to a reform camp in Montana after being involved in an armed robbery, she is thrust into a world of mountains and cowboys and miscreants. At Camp Challenge, she becomes transfixed by Lucky, a camp employee of mysterious origin—an origin of constant speculation—and the chemistry between them is instant, and profound. The pair escape together into the wilderness to create an idyllic life far from the reach of the law, living off their resounding love, Lucky’s vast knowledge of the wilderness, and a little help from some friends. But they can run from the outside world for only so long, and the consequences of their naïve fantasy of a future together—and circumstances shaped by skin color—will keep them apart for decades. Will Cindra ever see her soulmate again? Or are the dark whispers true?
Page-turning, full of vivid characters, delicious suspense, and ultimately joy, Lucky Turtle is a big- hearted,deeply engrossing love story from one of our most entertaining and perceptive writers.
I am Cindra Zoeller. I was born in 1980, in Watertown, Massachusetts, outside Boston. I wrote a report in fifth grade so I know Massachusetts is an Algonquian name meaning big little hills. I grew up there sledding the biggest of the little hills and skating on millponds and swimming in the lakes and rivers and the ocean with the other kids, though rarely with my sister, who was much older and mocked my love of the great outdoors, sat home reading, and I will never mention her again. I adored my father, who was a cabinetmaker or, when business was bad, a roofer. He hated roofing. My mother and I did not get along. She broke my ankle once by accident (but in a rage) and did not take me to the doctor. And then, when I was sixteen, I got in trouble.
There, that was fast.
My actual life begins with meeting Lucky, is why I’m hurrying.
I guess let’s start with the hearing. April Fool’s Day 1997. Old Watertown Congregational Church, yours truly seated at the head of the immense table in the sacristy, view of God’s Acre patched with snow and daffodils, all around me concerned adults: Reverend Turtman (pale, scrawny little twerp with glasses—we kids called him Turdman and took advantage of his good nature), and Mother and dear Pops, and Mr. Hightower, the principal of Watertown High, also Mrs. Small, the vice principal and chief disciplinarian (we called her Mister Large). And the lawyer, our lawyer, our criminal lawyer, a distinguished Black man named Mr. Burnett, from a big firm in Boston proper. And Judge Pernal, luckily Pop’s golfing pal, Caucasian person tanned to a crisp from his annual Florida trip, several shades darker than Mr. Burnett, whom he clearly looked down upon. Finally Miss Elegant (her actual name, and actually an elegant, if ineffectual, soul), my only institutional ally, my guidance counselor.
It was she who started the proceedings: “Let’s all think how we can be of service to Cindy.”
“Cindra,” my mother said.
“Be of service?” said Mrs. Small. She fairly trembled with indignation.
“You’re clear on what you’ve done?” Judge Pernal said.
“Yes,” I said meekly. “And I’m very sorry for it.”
“Your friend Dagoberto Murua will get twenty years,” he said.
“I’m aware,” I said. Lawyer Burnett had coached me: “And I agree that he deserves it.”
“Not Cindra’s friend,” Mr. Burnett said sternly. “Her abuser.”
“You were taken advantage of,” Pops said sweetly.
“Very much so,” said Miss Elegant.
“No, I take responsibility,” I said.
Both Mr. Burnett and Judge Pernal nodded at that. Clearly, unlike my Puerto Rican codefendants, I was on the right track, headed for rehabilitation and an eventual return to society. Also, as no one was saying, I was white.
“Armed robbery,” my mother said. “Assault with a deadly weapon!” She had been repeating this phrase for weeks.
My father said, “Mother.”
Judge Pernal cleared his throat, a man of little drama, chilly gaze. “And Mr. Murua’s brother, Guillermo,” Giller-mo, he pronounced it. “You’re aware that for his role he’s going to Cutler until he’s eighteen, then to State, likely ten years total.”
“Aware,” I said. Cutler School for Boys, that hellhole, famous for cruelty.
“And that something similar could very easily be your fate.”
“I’m aware. Very much so.”
Judge Pernal gave me a long look, the very look of justice. “But we do agree that your role in the incident was less than intentional. You held no weapon. You called for an ambulance.”
“Hours later,” said Vice Principal Small.
“Saving two lives,” Pops said.
“Having jeopardized those lives,” said Vice Principal Small.
“A fine girl,” said Miss Elegant. “All that sunny blond hair.”
“Let us stay on track,” said Mr. Burnett.
The judge said what everyone already knew he was going to say. That he was saying it in church rather than in his courtroom meant I would avoid having the felony on my record. He read from a handwritten document, tapped the table to accent each item: “We remand you to Camp Challenge in the town of Elk Creek, Montana, voluntary enrollment, two years. No parental contact for the first six months, monthly after that, weekly in your second year. A full courtroom trial if the camp administration is not happy with your progress or you leave those premises for any reason. At Camp Challenge you will pursue and complete your high school certificate. You’ve missed nearly a year of school—I disagreed with the expulsion, for the record. You will also accelerate your religious studies, investigate college options, and begin to make financial amends to the victims of your associates. Release on your nineteenth birthday, probation thereafter until you reach the age of twenty-one, probation waived if you are enrolled at a four-year college. All Camp Challenge fees and tuition to be paid by your parents, repaid by you at a later date, as per agreement.”
Pops wept, the only one.
“Armed robbery,” my mother repeated.
“Criminal mischief,” said Mr. Burnett to correct the record: a deal was a deal.
“A very adventurous young lady,” said Miss Elegant elegantly.
“Remand Thursday,” said the judge.
Reverend Turtman cleared his throat, said, “In Jesus’s name, let us pray.” The mercifully assembled bowed their heads. My father and I hesitated, slight grins as our eyes met and Reverend Turtman began. Finally Pops sighed, bowed his head, first I’d ever seen. Not me. I got an image of vast plains in my head, of snowcapped peaks, of dauntless Blackfeet and Crow and Oglala and Miniconjou warriors on horseback, coup sticks held high. Delusions, in other words. I’d read up extensively on Camp Challenge and on Montana history in the months since the deal had been struck, my only schooling since the crime, and I was ready to put trouble and all these dour adults behind me and start in on what seemed an adventure, nothing a prayer would change.
A Montana marshal with an actual badge had to fly with me, a very kind and quiet gentleman, from Helena, where the main street was Last Chance Gulch, he said, the only conversation we really had, that and the fact that as a history buff he’d really enjoyed seeing Boston. My parents had paid for that, too. The marshal had a subliminal interest in my chest, his eyes darting furtively. He was a real cowboy, hat and all, very thin and tall, easily forty years old, a weathered artifact. We changed planes at Chicago, changed again at Denver, snowy mountain ranges to the west, bare dry plains to the east, just as on the library maps I’d been examining. A big blue jail bus with a sheriff-badge logo and actual steel bars in the windows met us at the quaint Billings airport, no snow to be seen, almost hot in the sun. The marshal shook my hand in farewell, handcuffed me, draped my coat over my shoulders, and walked me thirty feet to the bus, where the mangy-looking guard unlocked one hand as my coat slid to the dusty ground.
“I’ll get it,” the guard said, helping me up to the front passenger’s seat, where I guessed girls got to sit. He locked the loose end of the handcuffs on the grating behind me such that I couldn’t quite rest my hand in my lap. “You gonna be the only female today,” he said, and tucked my coat between my legs a little forcefully.
In back, eight or nine prisoners sat with bowed heads, all handcuffed to their seats, about half of them looking to be Blackfeet or Crow or maybe Miniconjou, but what did I know: nothing. The rest were scuffed whites, ancestors from every corner of Europe, one might reasonably guess. There was no talk, none. The guard threw the bus in gear, drove us from jailhouse to prison to courthouse to bus station, dropping men off, picking men up. Everyone was on mumbly good behavior, not a word of defiance. The guard patted my leg at each stop, incrementally higher on my thigh, tugged at my coat so it fell on the floor, patted a little higher, finally eking out a phrase: “Don’t get many like you.”
“Stop it,” I said.
He acted like he hadn’t heard but stopped, and that was the end of that. I understood without understanding that as a fresh delinquent I might seem a certain way. But it’s not like I didn’t know what he was thinking: I’d been secretly dating Dagoberto DeLeon Murua for six months at the time of our crime. Dag was the big brother of Billy Murua, who was a sweet, smart boy I knew from school. I’d call them Afro-Caribbean now, very charming young men, both of them. Billy and Dag were the sons of Jack-Boy, as he was called, the one mechanic in town, a former major-league baseball player out of Puerto Rico who’d been hurt in his second season, specialty in luxury cars, a high-end business, nothing to sniff at income-wise, beloved so long as nothing went wrong. I met Dag at a quarry party, one of the older guys swimming in the hot moonlight. After I’d sidled near, and after some smoldering looks back and forth—Billy’s big brother!—he asked me very formally to walk with him under the moon, and there in the field behind the abandoned quarry steam shovel, he took me in his arms and said I was his. Fine with me! I hadn’t been soul-kissed as yet, but I was soul-kissed then. He was so bold in everything, once he got going, and yet such a gentleman, none of the rushing hands I’d encountered before, just the very nice, very long kiss and a promise we’d go out.
“My parents will never,” I said.
“We’ll meet up secret places,” he said. “Billy says you are one for adventure.”
“He says you are the smartest man he knows.”
“He told me you were funny.”
He laughed heartily at that, so I guessed I was.
Yes, and we met. I lied and told him I was seventeen. Even that age gave him pause. But we’d already fallen in love. My great brainstorm was to join the swim team as the coach’s assistant (with my bent foot I was no longer competitive). Five a.m. practice, but Coach didn’t mind if I turned up late, or even at all, since I had few actual duties. And parents, my parents anyway, didn’t think of early morning as a time to get in any trouble. I’d get up to my alarm, dress quick, meet Dag in his muscle car at the corner and straight to his room over Foreign Classics Auto, their garage, his bachelor pad—guy with a plan. He was gentle but insistent, and almost twenty years old, and very experienced, liquid tongue, diagnostic fingers. To be desired like that, to have a secret like him! My body was his, and his appreciation was boundless. He had condoms, which I’d never till then successfully negotiated. He gave me suggestions to please him, and I took pleasure in them all. He pleased me, too, almost embarrassing.
In languid interstices, we looked through his auto magazines and picked out dream cars, not that I knew a thing. Eloquently, he explained fuel injection to me, and cylinder diameters, his expertise and passion like love poems. I brought him a cutting from one of my mother’s jade plants, some life for his empty enormous commercial windowsills, and he quizzed me after that, optimum care and maintenance strategies, like a houseplant was a car. I brought him more, all sorts, nearly a plant a visit, and he loved them tenderly, treated me like a master gardener and not only a lover. Till then, I’d been master of nothing and a lover not at all, not like that.
The only commandment was to get to school on time, and occasionally to swim-team practice and the stacking of kickboards, nice ache down low.
A dispute arose with the Mercedes dealership over in Belmont, that’s all. Mr. Murua had worked for days hand-milling parts for an antique Bentley, obsolete transmission, got stiffed for the bill, which the skinflint dealer decided was too high. The ol’ man was stoic, not one to rock the boat, but Dag believed in family honor. I was the driver, having dropped my mom at the T, the Boston commuter train, five a.m. Dag and his little brother carried baseball bats and used them to smash windows in the big garage doors at the swank dealership—it looked more like a hotel—reached in, unlocked everything, expertly disarmed the alarm system before it could make a peep.
We loaded precision tools into the back of my family car, whole workboxes filled with metric wrenches, an air compressor worth plenty, boxes of Mercedes parts: payment plus interest. But the owner of the business was there. The one thing you don’t plan. Upstairs in his office with his bookkeeper (which of course didn’t even make the papers he advertised in so heavily, her baby-doll lingerie never mentioned at the grand jury proceedings—officially they were on the up-and-up, just there extra early doing the books). They hadn’t heard a thing but came down half-naked to get more champagne from the waiting-room fridge. Dag, he flipped. At the infidelity as much as anything. He was like that, sternly moral even though he was sleeping with a sixteen-year-old. Bapped the guy in the shoulder with his baseball bat, fended off the girl and her manicured nails. And that would have been it, but the dealer couldn’t just be quiet, n-word this and n-word that, thick German accent, fueled by what? Cocaine? Molly? And racism, of course, worse than all other possible poisons combined. So Dag hit him again, this time in the face. Billy grabbed the bat, and believe me, there would have been more damage than the broken jaw if he hadn’t, though that’s not what the woman testified. She said that Billy kicked her in the neck, not true, that he made sexual slurs. Absolutely not. But there were those hickeys she had to account for. The brothers herded her into the mechanics’ bathroom, broke the lockset off with hammers so she couldn’t get out. She screamed in there like an old-school movie star. The dealer was unconscious but breathing, his heart pounding away—Billy checked.
I was excited by the violence at first. Burning rubber out of there, I laughed like a gun moll. But then at school, waiting for the doors to open, boys and Mercedes-shop booty safely dropped at the garage, I was hit with what we’d done. Also overcome with anger at Dag, and with remorse. I mean, there was a basically old man maybe dying on an oil-soaked cement floor in a business that wouldn’t open for an hour.
As the sun pinkened the sky, Mr. Rolly the custodian unlocked the school doors. I pushed past the other early birds and at the pay phones by the cafeteria called the fire department, asked for an ambulance. I knew it wouldn’t be smart to call the police. I gave my name because they asked. I gave my name! Some criminal.
Next thing you know that big blue jail bus was dropping me in handcuffs at a gas station in Billings, Montana (large, long-weathered sign retained as a sick joke: no indians or hippies—I guessed there’d never been enough Black people around there to rate a mention), and a van was picking me up, red, white, and blue:
a brand-new start for girls
The driver was my age, maybe a little older, slender, huge cowboy hat and cowboy boots and cowboy buckle. He wore a long black braid tied with rawhide and thicker rawhide bands around his wiry biceps. I supposed he was Crow. Having been grounded for months and my only refuge the Watertown Library, I’d read up on the reservation, which was big as at least half of Massachusetts. I knew Wrangler jeans when I saw them, library or no: big W stitched on each back pocket, narrow legs stretching all the way down to cowboy boots, perfectly worn leather. He unlocked my handcuffs, tossed them to the jail-bus guard, closed me in the back of the van. He smelled like some distant burning, I can hardly explain it, studied my eyes whenever I was required to cooperate, didn’t put his hands on me, didn’t ask any questions, didn’t offer any greetings, not a word from his mouth.
And off we went.
The reality hit me hard. No contact with my parents for six months. No contact with Dag ever again, though I’d begun in the months since our crime to despise and not love him, stupid, hotheaded man, and to love his brother, Billy, very sorry for him, the boy I should have been dating.
But Elk Creek was something beautiful to see, a river, really, crashing down the mountain as we ascended, sunshine and plains and vast valleys and mountain ridges, peaks more distant, the air like snapping flags, gusts buffeting the van, not a structure in sight until we came to a fence, a wide steel gate. The driver climbed out and opened it, climbed back in and drove through, climbed out again on the other side, closed the gate again with a clang. I thought it was camp security, and not very effective looking, saw myself tramping down that long road by moonlight—escape. But where would I go?
We turned onto a smaller road to follow a smaller river. The air was dry and very clear and even a little cold. Bright lichens hung from the trees. We rumbled over cattle grates embedded in the road. I asked the driver how far we had to go, shouting through the steel mesh as the van banged over gravel—but he gave me no notice. We climbed up out of the barren plain and into the trees, lots of trees, mostly evergreen—trees I didn’t yet know the names of. And wildflowers, some coming up through patches of snow: Indian paintbrush and columbine and that other one, the purple-and-yellow one, very tall. And the constant wind, the van windows cracked open, out of my control, the air chilly, then chillier. The driver braked suddenly, oblivious as I half slid off the big bench seat.
Twelve or more animals like giant deer placidly crossed the road in front of us. The last in line was a big bull with antlers. It stopped and examined the van a long while, finally moved along.
“Elk!” I cried. I’d read of them in one of my library books.
Nothing from the driver. He just continued on. At the top of a long hill, the view opened up to at least eternity, distant mountain ranges, high glaciers, and clouds, and sky. Then a sharp curve and after that a real gate in a real fence, eight feet high, chain link topped with taut strands of barbed wire. The gate was just a steel grid, two sheet-metal turtles riveted onto the face of it, giant turtles communing. We stopped and a guard emerged from the entry booth, an elderly woman who opened the gate dispassionately and waved us through. We pulled up in front of a long log building and stopped again. The driver made no move to get out, to let me out.
A crisp woman in tweeds and sensible shoes, coiffed hair almost black, opened my door. This was Dora Dryden Conover. I recognized her from my obsessive study of the Camp Challenge brochure: founder and director, still a beauty, and let that stand in for warmth. I slid out of the back of the van, stiff legged.
Dora Dryden Conover offered her hand and we shook, firm and dry, just as Daddy had taught me. She said, “Welcome to your new life, Cindra Zoeller.” She knew my name, she’d read my file—but she knew nothing about me, her eyes hard as blue ice. I felt my heart sink, looked away.
The driver collected my duffel bag from the van, laid it on the ground beside me. He stood tall and very still, didn’t look away but kept my eye, and I felt he saw the person I really was. He had no interest in the story I’d arrived with, only in the story that was to come. I saw that he himself had been buried somewhere deep by some disaster. I vowed right there that I would ferret him out, because deep is where the diamonds are made, and I would need something hard as that if I was going to survive.
Dora Dryden Conover led me inside the long building, knotty-pine everything. Shortly, a knotty-pine door opened and a tall, pallid white man in a rumpled suit appeared. “Well,” he said, “here’s a beauty.”
“Dr. Gilbert,” Dora clucked. “This is Cindra.”
“Cindra,” the doctor said, unchastened.
“We’d better keep this item safe,” said Dora, reaching to unclasp my necklace, the only piece of jewelry I’d ever owned, a pearl from my father. I didn’t protest—how could I? She gave me an appraising look, said, “Well. I’ll leave you to it, Doctor.” And pearl already in her pocket, she picked up my duffel bag, opened a different knotty-pine door, marched up a flight of stairs, further doors shutting behind her, footsteps receding.
Dr. Gilbert was another chest looker and more than that. Leave him to what? I fixed my collar, smoothed my pleated church skirt, safely midcalf.
I was to precede him through yet another knotty-pine door and down a long knotty-pine hallway. He aimed me into an airy, capacious dining room, beams and knots and benches and milk machines and raw tables, pine fragrant, reassuring. At the far end under a Red Cross flag, he gripped my arm and guided me through a dutch door, left the top half open, pushed me back into a warren of hallways and little offices, all of it empty, abandoned. It was late in the day, one of the new long days of spring. He indicated an exam room, steered me in there. No windows, fluorescent lights, knotty-pine walls and floor.
“You’ll undress,” he said. And handed me a cloth hospital gown.
I’d been to a doctor before, complied as modestly as I could. But didn’t they usually step out? He sat me down on the table, looked in my throat, ahh, looked in my ears, hmm, put his stethoscope on my chest, moved it all around. Honestly, in the moment it was only mortifying, but thinking about it now I’m filled with rage, this prodding of my nipples one at a time, these sharp pinches. “Sensitive?” he asked.
“No,” I lied.
He muttered medical words, took notes. “I’ll just palpate,” he said, and basically felt me up, very interested in my belly for some reason, higher and lower, and lower yet, pushing hard above my pubic bone, uncomfortable. “Virgin?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, though of course that wasn’t true by quite a few rugged miles.
He laid me back and put my feet in his stirrups—I mean picked my feet up and put them in—I’d never encountered stirrups. And again, what did I know? He wasn’t brief about whatever exam he was committing, and in fact it seemed truly clinical, terrible pressure, a lot of cold lube and prodding. “Nice and pink,” he said at last. And gave my pubis a pat. “And a real blondie, to boot.”
A double embarrassment in that I knew his words were inappropriate but also, and maybe worse, in that they pleased me, compliments being compliments. I have never told this to anyone. The doctor left, taking the clothes I’d been wearing with him: nice pink skirt, nice pink underpants from Sears, nice pink Keds, all the pink an effort not to seem too criminal. I hadn’t taken my socks off, so at least there was that, nice and pink, too. He locked the door behind him. The doors locked from the outside! I waited, looking for something to wipe with—nothing but a corner of their stupid gown—that steady, discomfiting wind in the trees outside.
Everything took so long. That was one way that camp was going to be different from life. But after a while the lock clattered and the door opened and a nurse stepped in, crisp uniform, pile of clothes and towels and bedding in her arms, smell of fresh laundry.
“Cindy Zoeller?” she said.
“Cindra,” I said.
“Let’s get dressed,” she said.
The nurse wasn’t going to go away but handed me clothing one item at a time. I dressed in front of her, working around the gown as modestly as I could, plain gray gigantic underpants, loose gray trousers in cotton with sewn-in elastic waist, gray undershirt, gray button-up shirt with a big cc on the back, smaller cc on the breast pocket, gray baseball cap, cc again, gray socks, which I put on over my own. She didn’t notice, thankfully, just handed me a pair of felt clogs, also gray, all while reading the doctor’s notes. “You’ll need regular gynecological exams,” she said. “‘Monthly at ovulation,’ he says here. You’ve got a tipped uterus. The doctor is here Wednesdays and Thursdays.”
“What is a tipped uterus?”
“Nothing. A lot of the girls have it. He can fix it, though. He generally always puts it right.”
Well, it sounded like good news, no idea what she was talking about.
“You look nice in gray,” she said, a welcome joke, delivered deadpan.
“Lucky me,” I said.
“Do you need a bra?”
“No, not really.”
- “An unforgettable love story.”—People
- “Fans of Roorbach’s prolific work will appreciate his signature lyricism and sense of place, his sweeping narrative, humor and romance. New readers are walking into the hands of a skilled storyteller who’s not afraid to take on a big, messy tale of love, privilege and abuse.”—New York Times Book Review
- “Nobody else could have written this gorgeous novel, full to the brim with tragedy but also fun, as well as the best kind of romance —embracing so much more than the couple at its center. Cindra is an impeccably loyal and honest narrator, our perfect guide through the wilds of Montana. Lucky Turtle is an ode and a love letter to our wounded, imperfect, and oh-so-beautiful world.”—Nina de Gramont, author of The Christie Affair
- “No one writes about love or the American wilderness like Bill Roorbach. A thrilling, blistering tale of young love and old hate and the steady endurance of both.”—Lily King, author of Five Tuesdays in Winter
- “Look out: Roorbach has created the sexiest man seen in literature in a good long time . . . An epic love story . . . No greater reading pleasure to be had anywhere.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- “Roorbach is a consummate raconteur skilled in breathing life into his characters. His prose is well-suited to the Montana landscape, capacious yet created with poetic economy, evoking the splendor of nature in language that sparkles like crystal clear mountain water . . . Roorbach’s understated, luminescent novel beautifully evokes an idyllic world created when two hearts are braided together.”—Booklist, starred review
- “An engrossing novel with standout characters.”—Library Journal, starred review
- “Two great love affairs—one between characters, the other with the wilds of Montana as its original inhabitants knew it—surge through this engaging, audacious novel. Every page hums with life and energy.”—Andrea Barrett, author of The Voyage of the Narwhal and Archangel
- “At once an adventure, a love story, and a profound meditation on the grandeur of the natural world, Lucky Turtle is a novel so full of beauty and heart and pathos that you won’t want it to end, a book that hums with grace, and sings with passion. Roorbach is a national treasure.”—Jonathan Evison, author of Small World
- “Roorbach delivers a most electric pulse into the hardscrabble dirt and veins in this novel's memorable backdrop of ancient Montana mountains and waters. Lucky Turtle gives us a world where adventure and landscape combine tenderly for a most unforgettable read.”—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders
- “A story of love and heartbreak in a world of breathtaking splendor and deep injustice, Bill Roorbach's Lucky Turtle is a novel of perseverance, brimming with entertaining dialogue and rich details of the flora and fauna of the West.”—Shelf Awareness
- “A new kind of romance… [and] a love letter to the beauty and power of Montana… The tensions don’t simmer here but roil, making for an emotionally challenging, worthwhile and truly special read.”—BookReporter
- “An unforgettable love story set starkly against Montana Wilderness.”—Largehearted Boy, starred review
- On Sale
- May 2, 2023
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Algonquin Books