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turtle in paradise

5 march 2014

There's a genre of contemporary American children's literature – I associate it with A Year Down Yonder, but there are many examples, going back at least as far as The Great Gilly Hopkins – that might be described as the "Orphan Utopia."

A kid, in trouble and helpless for any of various sundry reasons that are largely not his (but more usually her) own fault, is shipped off to distant relatives or caregivers in some funky place that time has passed by. Far from the alienating concerns of mainstream culture, surrounded by feckless adults and kids with bizarre nicknames, experiencing new cultures and eccentric socioeconomics, our protagonist is refreshed spiritually and set on the road to adulthood: a path fraught with challenge, but in recompense, the road less traveled.

Jennifer Holm's Turtle in Paradise is so square in the middle of the Orphan Utopia genre that one might call the whole thing the "Turtle in Paradise" genre: in fact it's a better name than Orphan Utopia, isn't it? I'll adopt it, and try to remember to link back here when I use it again, because it's a cinch I'll be using it again.

Turtle in Paradise books insist that authentic life is elsewhere: out of touch, out of sight, in both temporal and physical terms – in some world where the pretensions and interpersonal distances of modern society cease to matter, where every person, however underprivileged or ill-educated by standardized assessments, is a deeply individual, colorful, vibrant personality; where a community draws its living from local resources and its energy from the flouting of individual boundaries.

Organic families get reassembled in lots of children's books, though they may not always involve genetically related members. In Turtle in Paradise, set in 1935, our protagonist (nicknamed Turtle: "Mama says I've got a hard shell," ch. 10) is on uneasy terms with her mother. Both females are enchanted by the mother's new boyfriend Archie, but Turtle is getting in the way of romance, so she is sent from New Jersey to her mother's hometown, Key West, to get her out of the way. Instead of exile, Turtle finds liberation – as well as aunt, uncle, cousins, grandmother, and father.

The novel's New Jersey is barely represented, but it seems to be a place where personal relations are established by law, theatre, and rhetoric. In Key West, though, everybody's blood kin and nobody's a stranger. Relations she didn't even have concepts for flood into Turtle's new life at every turn. New foods, new ways of making a living, new climate, and a new lease on life: in a literally isolated, sustainable and mutually supportive community built around lavish fruit bowls and sponge fishing, a tolerant diverse community where preteen boys care for babies in a sort of socialist creche arrangement. Such scenarios teach Turtle what she lacks, and I think by extension they call out to the sense of lack in readers, their parents, and 21st-century America at large – hence Holm's choice of a pre-electronic past where news and people travel fitfully, where life is adjusted to the moon and the tides.

I hope I don't sound disparaging of the ideologies in Turtle in Paradise. It's not a realistic book (except when it comes to local color), and it's not meant to be. It's nostalgic, idealistic – and where should we look for nostalgia and idealism, if not in fiction?

My more serious issue with Turtle in Paradise as fiction comes from its lack of plot energy, a problem it shares with many honored juvenile novels of recent years. Turtle gets to Paradise, she spends 2/3 of the book meeting everyone, and then what? She vaguely wants her mother back, but not enough to hop a northbound freight. Paradise turns out to be a static place, despite the presence of scorpions and Ernest Hemingway. (Yes, Papa puts in an appearance.) So in the waning chapters, Holm has Turtle stumble upon a treasure map, and the kids go off in search of treasure, and find it, and are lost in a storm and quickly found again with no harm incurred. It's the least exciting adventure on record, as if causing any actual adrenaline to flow in the veins of a reader would make the book liable for damages.

Without knowing what she wants or taking steps toward, it, though, Turtle gets it all: family and paradise. "Maybe the real treasure has been right here on Curry Lane the whole time—people who love Mama and me. A home" (ch. 18). There's no place like imaginary alternative home.

Holm, Jennifer. Turtle in Paradise. New York: Random House, 2010. Electronic Edition. PZ7 .H732226Tu

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