Tamarack Award 2005

20th Annual Fiction Competition

The Winner

Nicole Lea Helget, Mankato


The Story

“The Turtle Catcher”


The Prize



The Judge

Scott Simon, final judge for the 2005 Tamarack Award competition, is a Peabody Award–winning journalist and the host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday. As a reporter for NPR, Simon has covered such stories as the war in Afghanistan, the civil war and prolonged famine in Ethiopia, the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, the siege of Sarajevo, and the destruction of Kosovo. He is the author of two highly acclaimed nonfiction books, Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan (2000) and Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball (2002). His first novel, Pretty Birds, the story of a female teenage sniper in Sarajevo, was released in May 2005. Writer Scott Turow called it “the most auspicious fiction debut by a journalist of note since Tom Wolfe’s…. It is a marvel of technical finesse, close observation, and a perfectly pitched heart.”


The Praise

Scott Simon, commenting on his selection: “‘The Turtle Catcher’ is a great, rattling, breathless mystery composed in rolling musical cadences. It opens with a sin, unwraps family secrets, and closes with a startling, searing cut, a rattle of skulls, and one more secret tossed in the weeds to escape with a flight of cicadas. The temptation is great to call this story ‘Faulkner in the Upper Midwest.’ But I find the details of its time and place—rural Minnesota in the Prohibition era—so true and telling that I’m reluctant to burden it by comparison. I admire the story’s driving plot, its dramatic atmosphere, and the way it moves between competing passions. Anna Berkner and Lester Piotter are two isolated, imprisoned souls who spell each other’s loneliness and spill each other’s secrets. I admire the audacity and sweep of this story, and the bristling confidence with which it so quickly populates a veiled landscape with such vivid, convincing characters.”


About the Author

Nicole Lea Helget, 29, is a master of fine arts candidate in creative writing at Minnesota State University–Mankato, where she also teaches. Her first book, The Summer of Ordinary Ways: A Memoir, has just been published by Borealis Books of St. Paul and is a featured selection in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. In 2004, her short story “Stain You Red” won MSU–Mankato’s Robert Wright Award and the Loft’s Speakeasy Award for Prose.

Helget grew up in Sleepy Eye and currently lives in Mankato with fellow writer Nate LeBoutillier and her three children, Isabella, Mitchell, and Pip.


About “The Turtle Catcher”

“My dad is a wonderful storyteller,” Nicole Lea Helget said when asked to describe how she came to write this story. “He told me a tale about a man who was forced into Wood Lake—forced by his neighbors to drown himself—near where I grew up in southern Minnesota. This real event happened many years ago, and the details are somewhat hazy. But the idea of men forcing suicide upon another man stuck with me. So I filled in details around this little tale and created Lester Piotter and Anna Berkner, created the tragedy of their relationship and the circumstances that led to his demise.

“‘The Turtle Catcher’ is the first chapter of a novel by the same name that I began writing in the spring of 2005. The rest of the novel takes Anna through the duration of her life, takes Lester through the journey of his purgatory, and settles, from time to time, on a southern Minnesota town trying to ward off its demons: the certainty of WWI, the draft of American German boys to fight other German boys in Europe, the infiltration of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety into the private lives of citizens. Progression and conformity versus privacy and the freedom to live one’s life are the novel’s themes, the forces that bind and work to destroy all three—Anna, Lester, and the town. And knowing which secrets are the keeping kind is a harrowing dilemma.”