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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Ellis' "The Turtle Warrior" swims through choppy issues


Gather 'round, let me tell you a story. It's about a struggling family living in rural America in 1967. It's about a country in a war that no one can fathom. It's about the complex threads that bind us to family, to friends, to neighbors, to memories. It's about survival, redemption, forgiveness and moving on.

Mary Relindes Ellis weaves a tight, compelling story in her latest novel "The Turtle Warrior." In a small fictional farming community in northern Wisconsin, John Lucas, an alcohol-fueled beast, terrorizes his wife Claire and their two sons, James and Bill, with brutal force and mental anguish. College-educated Claire retreats from her personal hell as she fights to curb her loneliness and desperation, sometimes lashing out and exploding into her own fits of despair. Older brother James acts as protector for his mother and brother and is internally trying to fight his own adolescent behaviors and actions.

When James enlists in the Marines during Vietnam, quiet, introspective younger brother Bill is left at the mercy of his monster of a father and his unpredictable mother. His only redemption is a stack of letters from James and the friendly childless neighbor couple, Ernie and Rosemary Morriseau.

Drawing on her own life experiences, Ellis creates many rich, complex characters to relay the environment and circumstances of the time.

"I did not have a sheltered childhood. I grew up in a time when people needed to communicate and experience life," says Ellis. "Creating characters can be torturous. You basically have to build a human being, add all the aspects. We all walk around with contradictions."

Ellis employs each intricately drawn character to narrate events in the story. "When you live in a small community and you think you are keeping your life private but so much can be understood and told through body language and expressions on your face. One event can be told through different perspectives."

Ellis' writing sprouts from her childhood in northern Wisconsin.

"I come from a strong storytelling culture; a German Catholic immigrant culture. We had Sunday dinners with the family, and there were a lot of older people telling their lives. Community storytelling was a big form of entertainment."

Ellis was trained in poetry and then began writing short stories. "I was going to be a journalist, but I didn't like it," she says, laughing. "I was reared on the classics and traditional literature. So instead I became an English major."

Writing a novel based on the Vietnam era can be a bit of a slippery slope for some writers. Ellis says she was careful to bring out the voices of the soldiers and not get into the politics.

"I had a brother in Vietnam, and I lived through that period of time. I am thankful to the editor of Leatherwork magazine; he was a vet. I was careful because of my brother and to not poke at the soldiers. They went on orders and had no idea what they were getting into. (In the story) James Lucas leaves his mother and brother vulnerable; he leaves one war to fight another. He leaves thinking he's leaving the worst and ends up in a whole new mess."

Currently living in Hammond, Wis., a "nifty little village" an hour outside the Twin Cities, Ellis is working on her second novel. "Sometimes it's a state of grace and just moves along. Other times, it is much more difficult." If "The Turtle Warrior" is any indication, good things come to those who wait.

Mary Relindes Ellis will read from "The Turtle Warrior" on Wednesday, Feb. 16 at Harry W. Schwartz in Brookfield at 7 p.m.

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