"Turtle in Paradise" was another book I picked up at SIBA last fall. The folks at Random House were pushing it in a big way, singing its praises. But it was only after months had gone by, and enough long-ish books had been read, that I picked it up because...it was short! I know, I am making you all cringe.
What I didn't know or expect is that it would charm my brains out. If I could eat it with a spoon, and chocolate syrup on top, I would. Hang on for some gushing.
Synopsis: Turtle has never known her father, and her mother has a bad habit of loving the wrong men, and having her head in the clouds. When her mother gets a job as a housekeeper, and the employer hates kids, Turtle is shipped down to Key West to live with her aunt, back where her mother grew up.
Turtle isn't sure this is a good idea. She has three dirty rude boy cousins, nobody wears shoes and has dirty feet, everyone has weird names, and everyone is kind of poor. It is 1935, after all, and times are tough. But Turtle is a fighter, refuses to be ignored, and pretty soon she finds she is fitting right in.
Her cousins call themselves the Diaper Gang. During the day, they pull around an old wagon, filled with the island's "bad babies". In other words, they are babysitters, rescuing harried mothers for an hour or two from teething, colicky infants. They have a secret cure for diaper rash, and they are in high demand. They work for candy. There is an old cranky woman, who Turtle finds out is her grandmother, who hates children, but might be susceptible to Turtle's charms. She befriends an old sailor, a rum runner, and a writer who hangs around alot and goes by the name of Hemingway.
But when Turtle finds a treasure map hidden in her grandmother's termite-infested piano, and the kids steal a boat to hunt it down on an uninhabited key, they get more than a bag of booty. Enter the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. (Haven't we been there recently? Doesn't everyone know they aren't supposed to be in Florida on Labor Day of that year?)
On this shabby, dirty island, Turtle learns many valuable lessons and finds her own paradise. She learns that money doesn't equal happiness. That family is everything, even if they do mess their pants. And that even a hard-shelled turtle has a soft underbelly.
My thoughts: Who would ever believe that so much comfort, humor and preciousness could be packed in a 185-page middle grade book? I was so tickled with it, I was giggling and squeaking for the two hours it took me to read it. I absolutely loved the character of Turtle. She was clever, and witty, and full of piss and vinegar. The residents of her Key West were just as memorable - everyone an eccentric, everyone with a story (which is the way it still is today).
The local references were all authentic. The dangers of scorpions, the term "alligator pear" for an avocado, sugar apple ice cream, Pepe's Cafe, the afternoon activity of a cut-up (gathering and cutting wayward pieces of fruit and vegetables into a bowl and topping it with lime juice and hot sauce), the efficiency of the rumor mill called the Conch Telegraph...this is all Key West-isms. Even the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane was a real event in history that devastated the Keys and a majority of the Florida coast.
In fact, Holm's great-grandmother emigrated to Key West from the Bahamas in 1897, and she grew up hearing the stories of her ancestors, which explains why this book rings true. Some of the characters in the book were based on real people, and she has provided black and white photos from Key West during the Depression era.
What all of this adds up to is a heart-warming story that will be loved by readers, whether they are 7 or 70. You may learn a little history about Key West, and you will most assuredly fall in love with a 10 year old girl named Turtle.
5 out of 5 stars