Early on in Bill Roorbach’s novel “Lucky Turtle,” narrator and protagonist Cindra Zoeller takes the reader through the circumstances in which she found herself in 1997. For her role in an as-yet-unspecified crime, Cindra – 16 as the novel opens – is offered the opportunity to forego the prison system for a camp in Montana. Roorbach makes it clear that we’re getting this filtered through the perception of an older Cintra, one who is aware of the systemic inequalities in the system that’s more lenient to her – blonde and white – than it is to her co-defendants, who are of Puerto Rican descent.

Soon enough, Cindra arrives at Camp Challenge, a space run by a former child star and populated by an array of characters ranging from amicable to hostile to outright abusive. The story of a young woman from New England sent thousands of miles away to find herself would have been sufficient for a detailed and compelling novel on its own, but that isn’t really what Maine resident Roorbach is after here.

Some of that comes from the contrast from young Cindra and the decades-older version of her who’s recounting this story. But Roorbach also lets elements of Cindra’s post-Camp Challenge life into the narrative, including a reference relatively early on that turns out to foreshadow plenty of subsequent developments. “Much later I had a therapist who said I liked the boundaries Camp Challenge provided,” Cindra muses. “All I’d said was that I’d liked wearing all gray.”

Prospective readers interested in heading into this novel cold might want to stop here; one of “Lucky Turtle’s” many charms is the way that Roorbach turns a relatively straightforward coming-of-age narrative into something more temporally complex. In other words, venturing into this novel without really knowing where this was going had its charms.

That said, that allusion to a therapist isn’t the last glimpse we get of Cindra’s adult life, and about a third of the way through the novel, Roorbach changes up the structure, juxtaposing Cindra’s growing romance with Lucky, a young man who works for the camp, with her life decades later, as she finds herself living an unfulfilled life in the suburbs with Walter, a controlling man who couldn’t be further removed from Lucky.

Roorbach follows Cindra from there in two different timelines. Her situation at Camp Challenge quickly becomes unsustainable for her. While there are genuinely caring people there among both her peers and the camp’s staff, there is also one particular figure whose abuse of his power – and whose literal abuse, period – is revealed in a chilling manner. Cindra and Lucky find themselves in love and on the lam, eventually creating their own small household with a few others who join them in isolation.


From the flash-forwards, we know that this won’t last. But the question of what, exactly, happened hovers above the proceedings, heightening the tension as to when Lucky and Cindra’s idyll will end. (There’s also an ongoing question of how Walter figures into all of this.) And seeing exactly how these seemingly disparate elements come together – which they do – is another of the pleasures that comes from the reading this novel. It’s not the only one, however; there’s also a joy that can come from lyrical passages like this, in which Cindra watches Lucky hunt a deer:

“But I felt the little deer tense, tensed myself, some feral corner in me, and then, with no further warning, the thud of impact. The animal collapsed to her front knees, then to one side, the spear holding her half upright as — beautiful creature built from mountains and valleys and brooks and wildflower meadows and sky — she became wind.”

There are also a few knowing nods from Roorbach that feel a little meta – including when one character argues that James Michener’s “Hawaii,” which Cindra is reading when she lives with Lucky, is irredeemably 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 believes that he’s Crow, but his family history proves more complicated than that – Roorbach seems to have his own opinions on the subject. (Notably, several sensitivity readers are credited in the book’s acknowledgements.)

“Lucky Turtle” is an expansive and empathic novel, one which spans large portions of the country and grapples with substantial issues. (The pandemic and racist militias also play a part.) At times, it can feel over-saturated; Cindra and Lucky are both deeply felt characters, while a few of the supporting characters are more ambiguously drawn. But in the end, Roorbach has written a moving novel that comes about that quality organically, and uses it to explore grand themes along the way.

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

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