Friday, October 8, 2010
Turtle in Paradise, written by Jennifer Holm. Random House, 2010. $19.99 ages 10 and up
"Our eyes are different, though. I think the color
of a person's eyes say a lot about them. Mama has
soft blue eyes, and all she sees is kittens and roses.
My eyes are gray as soot, and I see things for what
they are. The mean boy on the porch has green eyes.
Probably from all the snot in his nose."
Thus, Turtle meets Beans, her cousin in Key West, Florida. He is a cousin that she knew nothing about until her world is turned upside down and she has to leave her mama and go to live with her mama's sister and her family. It is 1935, the height of the depression. Turtle's Mom does housework and generally lives with the people for whom she works. Her new job with Mrs. Budnick is a good one, but her employer does not like kids. So, Turtle is shipped off. Meeting her cousins, their parents and the others who make up their community has its trials, but it also has its treasures.
Key West is a poor community and most of its people get help from the government just to put food on the table. The Diaper Gang is a group of boys who 'work for candy' to help the mothers by taking care of their babies while they work, or run errands. They seem to have a gift for soothing the babies and they certainly have a secret cure for diaper rash. Turtle tags along, watching them and learning as she goes. She misses her mother something awful, but knows she is where she is until her mother sends for her.
Everyone here has a nickname. Luckily, Turtle's fits. As her mother grew up here, everyone knows who she is. She meets a number of interesting people on the daily rounds. She is welcomed and finds acceptance among her cousins and the neighbors. One of the people who comes to love her is her grandmother; a grandmother she thought was dead (that is what her mama told her). Nana Philly has a reputation for hating kids, but she seems to enjoy her feisty, independent and thoughtful granddaughter.
When Mama and her present man show up married to take her home, Turtle thinks that her dream of a normal family is finally coming true. She soon discovers that Archie is just one more lowlife in a long list of men that her mother has met and loved. Turtle finds that her hard shell might not protect her this time:
"The tears rain down like spitballs, and there's no stopping them now. They're like a hurricane sweeping me away. Mama's drowning and she's dragging me under with her, and this time there's no one to rescue me. This time I'm not going to make it -"
Hallelujah! There is family...and they gather round, take Turtle and her mama under their wings and offer the stability and peace they need to move forward once again. This character-driven story offers up a fast pace, lots of action, an inspired setting and poignant family scenes. I've read it described this way: 'you're gonna find yourself up to your ears in scorpions and smugglers, boys and baby powder, treasure and trouble...as Turtle comes to learn what home is...' and that is pretty apt!
The story comes from Jennifer Holm's family history and her knowledge of the Conchs and the Key West community. She tells it with love and pizazz. She leaves us to hope that we will meet up with these characters again, in the near future.