Turtle in Paradise is set in 1935, during the Great Depression, and the hardships of the era provide a backdrop to the story. Work is scarce, and many people, like Turtle herself, are displaced. Key West is particularly badly hit by the Depression, and its poverty shows in its small, ramshackle houses and the shortage of work for people of all ages. Turtle's uncle has to work far from home, returning only infrequently. This becomes a particularly important issue during the hurricane, when many of Uncle Vernon's workmates are killed, and the disappearance of Turtle and her friends probably saves his life, since in brings him back home in time to avoid sharing their fate.
Although Turtle's family is poor, they have a roof over their heads and enough to eat, and she realizes that this makes them more fortunate than most people. The background of the Great Depression also makes the rags-to-riches story of the young treasure hunters all the more spectacular when they are paid $20,000 for the gold they find. Even Turtle's share of this is enough of a fortune to incite Archie to steal it and run away to Cuba, suggesting that the shares retained by her cousins and grandmother will be enough to change the family's life forever.