It was 1935, and our nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. Eleven year old, Turtle was shipped off to Key West, Florida when her mother landed a job as a live in housekeeper. The housekeeper did not like children. This is difficult for Turtle because she is not sure how her mother will survive without her.
Turtle’s mother often lived in a fantasy world, while Turtle lived in reality. Turtle is a well developed character. She seemed to have an old soul and was always looking out for her mother. “Mama’s always falling in love and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they’re there bright as sunshine- charming mama, buying me presents-and the next they’re gone, scattered to the wind leaving weeds everywhere and mama crying.”
I blame Hollywood. Mama’s watched so many pictures that she believes in happy endings. She’s been waiting her whole life to find someone who’ll sweep her off her feet and take care of her. Me? I think life’s more like that cartoon by Mr. Disney- The Three Little Pigs. Some big bad wolf’s always trying to blow down your house.”
I thought her name was quite interesting and honestly suits her character. She has developed a hard outer shell as a result of her mother always falling in love and then the men move on. But underneath the tough outer shell, Turtle’s character is quite soft and warm.
After she arrives in Key West, I could feel the cultural shock Turtle was facing. Kids were walking around without shoes and they were filthy. She learned about alligator pears (avocadoes), rum running, and sponge fishing. Her cousins, who also had unique names, had their own business, “The Diaper Gang.” They would take care of babies by walking them around the streets in a wagon. They also developed a powder that would cure the worst of any diaper rash. They were earning money to buy candy. It was certainly a different period in time. Parents today would never let their young kids walk around unsupervised, let alone with babies.
Turtle’s mother had told her that her grandmother, Nana Philly, was dead. Only to find out that she is alive and well. Why did her mother lie to her? As Turtle begins to bring lunch to her each day she learns more about her. She discovers that her grandmother was mean to her mother and that is why she hasn’t come back to Key West. Turtle doesn’t give up on this mean woman though. She continues to bring her lunch each day and begins to crack down the tough shell that the grandmother has as well. One example from the story that I found to be humorous was when Turtle would give her grandmother food and she would knock it on the floor. Turtle said, “You did that on purpose. Why? I’m your granddaughter.” The grandmother’s mouth twitched as if that amused her. The grandmother dumped her food on the floor again the following day. Then Turtle put a bowl of guava duff in front of her. The grandmother lifted her hand to smack it, but Turtle was able to save it in enough time. Then she said, “You’re not wasting dessert. I’ll eat it.” I think Nana Philly came to respect Turtle because of her no-nonsense personality. Turtle didn’t have trouble telling any adult how she felt.
This book started out slowly to really develop the characters, the time and place. Holm’s uses many analogies throughout the book to help the reader understand the characters, as well as the setting. For example, “Folks have always told me that I look like Mama. My hair’s brown, same as hers, but its cut short in a bob with bangs, like a soup bowl turned upside down. Mama keeps hers long as a good dream because that’s the way Archie likes it.” Holm’s use of descriptive language helps me visualize what the characters look like but she also describes their character type. I already know that Turtle’s mom is working hard to keep a man and this is just another example of what she is willing to do to keep this guy around.
Then, at the end, I was so surprised by the turn of events. However fortunate or unfortunate the events are, there seems to be a bigger purpose behind it all. One might think that Turtle is in paradise because she is by the ocean. I think she is in paradise because she has what she has been longing for all along.
This two time Newberry Honor winner and New York Times best- selling author, Jennifer Holm’s, was inspired to write this book by her Conch great grandmother Jennie Lewin Peck. She includes an author’s note in the back along with photos, resources, and websites to further enhance the reader’s knowledge about life during this time in Key West.