I finally finished listening to the audiobook of Turtle in Paradise while sitting in the library parking lot a few weeks ago. I had checked this audiobook out months ago and tried to listen to it, but times for me to listen to anything uninterrupted are few and far between. I returned it to the library unfinished, but then it was named a 2011 Newbery honor book, so I took it out again. (I can’t always get my hands on new fiction, award-winning or not, so I was quite delighted at this development!) This time, about half way through the second CD of a three CD set, I experienced technical difficulties beyond my ability to fix: skips and repeats, etc. I took it back to the library, but by this time I was fully invested in the story. I had to find a way to read it! Lo and behold, I went to another local library, and it had a copy of the audiobook. Great! I just picked up where I left off. This audiobook is particularly good–Becca Battoe’s voice seems especially suited for the voice of Turtle. A couple of things bothered me, though: I have a hard time figuring out where I am in the book when I listen to an audiobook, and this really discombobulates me. Second, I hate it when I don’t know how names are spelled, etc. Turtle in Paradise is especially challenging for me in this way because it is rife with funny nicknames that sometimes I can’t even imagine how to spell. I want to know!
So here I sit, with the novel in hand, to write this review. I was jubilant when I left the second library where I found another copy of the audiobook with the actual book, too. I visit this library frequently, but this was the first time I had seen the book there. I finished listening to the audiobook, and it really is an excellent production, but I feel like I don’t have a good grasp of a story unless my eyes have actually relayed the information to my brain.
Turtle in Paradise is the story of a twelve year old girl, Turtle, who leaves her home in New Jersey and travels south to the Florida Keys to live with her mother’s relatives, people she has never met. America is in the throes of the Great Depression, and Turtle’s mother is a housekeeper for a woman who can’t tolerate children. Turtle shows up on her Aunt Minnie’s doorstep and plunges into a world of boy cousins, Conch (native Key West) culture, and adventure. Turtle is not always eager to go along with her cousins’ schemes, and neither are they always willing to invite her to join them. She has been around enough kids to know that they can be “rotten,” and the boys have their own pecking order in their Little Rascals-style club, the Diaper Gang. However, there is really not much else to do in this tropical paradise, and Turtle can definitely hold her own with this gang of boys, whose nicknames include Pork Chop, Beans, Too Bad, and the like. Turtle, whose nickname bespeaks her hard shell, is a tough cookie, but by the end of the story, even she has come to realize the value of having a place to belong.
What makes this story so enjoyable is the 1930s Key West flavor that Holm has woven into its every sentence and chapter. Turtle hates Shirley Temple (life never works out the way it does in her movies!), but she loves heroes from the comics like Little Orphan Annie and Terry and the Pirates, and all of these cultural icons are mentioned over and over again in the story as reference points for how her life is working out. The effects of the Great Depression are felt all the way to the isolated Keys, from the Diaper Gang that babysits Key West babies in exchange for candy (since no one could pay them cash) to Turtle’s Uncle Vernon who works away from home. The kids in the story have the run of the island, and they get into all kinds of mischief and adventure. Jennifer L. Holm based this book on her great grandmother’s life and the lives of other relatives in Key West; it is a story with a vivid sense of place and time and with characters who are very authentic. I give Turtle in Paradise a Highly Recommended.
As an aside, I’ve been trying to think of other juvenile fiction selections with such a sense of place. What’s your favorite?
I have read Our Only May Amelia, another Newbery honor title by Jennifer L. Holm, but it has been years. I brought home the audiobook Penny from Heaven,yet another Newbery honor title, from the library–now I just have to find time (and quiet!) to listen to it.