Written by Jennifer L. Holm
When thinking of Turtle, the protagonist in the historical fiction novel, Turtle in Paradise, written by Jennifer L. Holm, I am reminded of a Colgate commercial that used to air on television in the late nineties.
A kindergarten teacher was asking children: “What color is the grass?”
Teacher: “What color is my sweater?”
Teacher: “Good, and what color are my teeth?”
Kids: “…silence…” “Beige,” “Off-White,” “…Mother of Pearl!”
This commercial reminds me of the innocence of children and the brutal honesty that they can sometimes possess (before they develop a filter, that is…). Children are observant and they pick up on much more than I believe we sometimes realize. Turtle is just this way—observant, wise beyond her years, strong, and honest. Turtle certainly calls it the way she sees it and tells it like it is.
For example, at the very start of the book, Turtle opens with, “Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it.”
When explaining that she is named Turtle because her mother says she has a hard shell, she thinks:
“And I do. I haven’t cried since I was five years old. I don’t think I have much of a choice, to tell the truth. Who else is going to hold things together when Mama falls apart after some man disappears? Once you get out of the habit of crying, you hardly even miss it.”
Turtle needs to have strength and wisdom because even at the age of eleven she has already been through so much. She does not know who her father is, she did not even realize she had any family until she arrived in Key West, and she is practically taking care of her mother who is on a search for love and happiness.
Holm is able to successfully develop all of her characters in order to help us as readers get a true sense of the setting. The story takes place during the Depression in 1935. Families in Key West are poor and doing whatever they can to make ends meet. Children are running around without shoes and Turtle’s cousins even have their own business changing diapers and watching babies—a service they exchange for candy.
I was surprised about the use of the outhouse in the story. I did not realize that outhouses were prevalent in the 1930s. I also realized how trustworthy adults were during this time period. In both Turtle in Paradise and Moon Over Manifest, set during the Depression, and One Crazy Summer, set during the late sixties, the children were allowed to roam free and pretty much do whatever they wanted. I remember my mother used to tell me that her mother would tell her and her sisters to go outside and play in the morning and they would disappear with the neighborhood kids until dinnertime. She always says that she couldn’t believe her mom let them do that—and insisted as a child that I not ride my bike beyond the driveway for a good few years. It makes me wonder—was it any less dangerous then to be outside gallivanting as a young child then it is now? Or, was it just perception?
When Turtle, Beans, Pork Chop, Buddy, Kermit and Ira all set out on an adventure to find treasure, it amazes me that they have left their home, stolen a boat, and taken it to another island in order to find treasure. This would certainly be unheard of in this day and age—I am not sure they would have even been able to leave the dock without being seen.
When reading the author’s note, one realizes how much historical fact took a role in the story of Turtle in Paradise. I had wondered why all of the children had odd nicknames, but as it turned out, nicknaming is a Key West tradition. It was interesting to find out that Kermit was Holm’s cousin and he did once trick Jimmy the ice cream man with the trick where he put the nickel in the bottom of the ice cream cup. It is always interesting to read about the real facts that have inspired the fiction. Holm’s does a wonderful job of intertwining these facts within the text.
At the end of the story, One Crazy Summer, written by Rita Williams-Garcia, the eleven-year-old character Delphine is told by her mother Cecile to, “Be eleven while you can.” Although these words are not spoken to Turtle in this story, I believe that the same message can be taken. When Turtle finally allows herself to break down in tears, “And I can’t help it; I start crying. I cry for everything—for poor Smokey getting burned up by those boys, for every mean word some kid said to me, for all the times one of Mama’s fellas raised our hopes and dashed them. Most of all, I cry for my poor dumb heart for secretly believing that Mama and Archie and me could be a real family…Mama’s drowning an she’s dragging me under with her, and this time there’s no one to rescue me…” I think she realizes that she is only eleven and that she cannot take care of her mother. Turtle does get her happy ending—although it is not the one she always imagined. I feel it is even better—she gets her family and the chance to be eleven.