“Lucky Turtle: A Novel” by Bill Roorbach; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2022; 414 pages, paperback, $24.

In Bill Roorbach’s new novel, “Lucky Turtle,” the character whose name gives the book its title is a young handyman at a reform camp for girls in Montana. We encounter him after the narrator of the story, Cindra Zoeller, is steered there by a criminal court after a run-in with the law. Cindra is kind of a typical brash but likable Massachusetts teenager with a good heart, a good sense of humor, a knack for language, and curiosity for knowledge.

Camp Challenge, deep in the Montana outback, is not so bad, really, except for an overbearing female director, a lecherous doctor and a place called the Vault, where misbehaving girls are sometimes stored. As Cindra settles in, she crosses paths with Lucky, a tall, dark, laconic young man rumored (pejoratively, by some) to be Native American. In one of their first encounters, he makes an astounding oracular statement to Cindra who is so blown away that she completely tumbles for him. From there follows one of the sweetest young-love stories you’ll ever read, involving clandestine sex, a rescue, a chase, a safe house with a quirky Native American seer, and then a hideout deep in the mountains where Cindra learns tracking and subsistence living from Lucky, who learned it from the local Native community. From Cindra, Lucky learns love.

Things cannot stay idyllic forever. Circumstances begin to close in on Lucky and runaway Cindra. A tense adventure ensues, shaped along the way by revelations about the complex mysteries of Lucky’s indeterminate racial background. His dark skin makes him easily targeted as a kidnapper by the locals, who include a contingent of unabashed white supremacists.

Corruption runs deep here, not only the corruption of overt racism, but also the age-old corruption involved in Native land rights. One chapter, in the midst of revealing Lucky’s history and heritage, depicts the chilling details of what transpires when local courts, law enforcement and commerce are controlled by people with racist leanings. It should be read by anyone interested in how things are apt to line up eventually if overtly racist politicians regain control of legal institutions in the next couple of election cycles. “A Handmaid’s Tale” was science fiction. Lucky Turtle’s story is pure realism.

Cindra is narrating the events of her teenage adventure from the vantage point of her late 30s, and bit by bit we arrive in her present day and the extensive fallout from her love of Lucky. What develops from the story is a subtext about knowledge, what it is, how it gets passed along, and what are its sources, which are sometimes as straightforward as memories, photos and property deeds, and sometimes more mysterious and oracular.

“Lucky Turtle” is an exuberantly good read, a vivid, appreciative depiction of the vast western mountains outback, and an insightful look at how racial prejudice actually works to shape, and misshape, actual lives. A great love story to soothe the mess we’re in here in the early decades of the 21st century.

Bill Roorbach lives in Farmington. His books include the novels “The Remedy for Love” and “Life Among Giants,” the short fiction collection “The Girl of the Lake,”  “Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey,” and others. “Lucky Turtle” is available through local bookstores and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at offradar@dwildepress.net.

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