Turtle Moon

by Alice Hoffman

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Turtle Moon

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Like Alice Hoffman’s earlier book Seventh Heaven (1990), Turtle Moon is a blend of reality and fantasy, tragedy and comedy. In Turtle Moon, the changes in tone occur so frequently that the effect is dizzying. The novel, however, is unified by recurring themes and by appealing characters. Moreover, though the tone varies from incident to incident, Hoffman’s refreshingly optimistic view of life remains constant. Although she will not guarantee happy endings, most of her sympathetic characters do work through their difficulties to a possibility of happiness.

The complexity of tone characteristic of Hoffman’s fiction is illustrated in the initial pages of Turtle Moon, when the author describes Verity, Florida, where most of the action of the novel takes place. At first she writes about humidity, iced coffee, mushy figs, and an argument over a Chevy Nomad, all prosaic details, presented in crisp, simple language, suggesting that a realistic novel is to follow. Before the first paragraph has ended, however, she has ventured into fantasy, with a casual comment about souls so weighed down by humidity that they come to rest on living people. Then, as if to prove that such fantastic events are not whimsy or metaphor but actual fact, she tells how the founder of Verity controlled the spirits who were troubling him by catching them in a sugar bowl. The return to realism comes just as suddenly as the excursion into fantasy, for there is nothing extraordinary connected with the parades down Main Street held annually in honor of the founder with the magical gifts. These alternations imply that the world of Turtle Moon is that of magical realism. In Verity, Florida, there is no division between the supernatural and the natural, except in the minds of the unseeing, but both exist simultaneously in what is generally called the real world.

In addition to rejecting the dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, Hoffman’s readers must adjust to her interweaving of comedy and tragedy. Early in the novel, she explains the title of the book as involving a clearly comic situation. Every year in May, she says, all of the creatures in Verity, Florida, experience a kind of madness that extends from the sea turtles, which come into town assuming that the West Main Street streetlights are really the moon, to the flaming red ficus bushes, to the rattlesnakes, to the human beings, who during that dangerous period must fight the temptation to abandon all order and restraint. That annual insanity is benign compared to the darkness that dominates the lives of some of Verity’s residents and that eventually threatens the most vulnerable of them. One of the characters in Turtle Moon believes himself to be a murderer; another actually is murdered; and two others, both children, must hide for fear of being killed by the real murderer. In the midst of the magic and the comedy that abound in Verity, then, there is also unhappiness and the possibility of tragedy.

The unhappiness is particularly intense because of the large number of divorced women who have come to live in Verity. Typically, they have given up not only affluent, predictable life-styles but also the social status that can be guaranteed only by having a prosperous husband. Their misery is accentuated by the realization that their former husbands continue to live well, often with new, younger wives, while their children, who cannot understand the loss of everything that made them feel secure, often take out their anger on their mothers and even wish to leave them for their fathers and their old homes. Such is the situation...

(This entire section contains 2046 words.)

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of Lucy Rosen, who is supporting herself minimally by writing obituaries while her son, Keith Rosen, skips school, indulges in petty crime, and, deliberately working to become the “meanest boy in Verity,” seems to be destined for prison.

Although her friends do not realize it, the plight of the woman they know as Karen Wright is as desperate as Keith’s, though in her case it is fear, not rage, that dominates her life. Karen is afraid to tell anyone that her real name is Bethany Lee, because she fears that her wealthy and influential former husband will find her and claim the right to terrorize her and her baby daughter, Rachel Lee.

The misery that local policeman Julian Cash feels has a different source. Twenty years ago, he had been as addicted to trouble as Keith is now, as determined to spite the person who loved him most, in his case, his cousin Bobby Cash. First Julian slept with Bobby’s girlfriend; then, driving drunk, he ignored Bobby’s pleas to slow down and crashed the car, causing his cousin’s death. Since that time, Julian has isolated himself. Although he is now within the law, not outside it, he is close to no one. His only real friend is Loretta, one of the dogs he uses in police work; although he owns another dog, Arrow, Julian considers him too savage to be a companion.

The event that brings all these isolated people together is both a tragedy and a mystery. The body of Karen Wright (Bethany Lee) is found in her soundproof apartment, and her baby Rachel disappears, presumably from the laundry room in the building. Keith, too, is nowhere to be found. With his record of antisocial and violent behavior, Keith becomes the logical suspect, and even the mother who loves him finds it difficult not to fear the worst. Although the murder is not solved until the end of the novel, the author soon permits the reader to learn of Keith’s innocence. Keith has taken the baby and is hiding out with her, but his actions are motivated by a desire to protect her from whoever murdered her mother. The fact that his instincts are good, not evil, indicates that whatever Verity may think of him, whatever he may think of himself, Keith can still be redeemed.

After the murder, the plot of Turtle Moon develops along two parallel lines. One of them traces the adventures of Keith and Rachel, first during their flight, then during the healing process at the haven Julian finds for them. The other follows Julian and Lucy, who soon begin working together to find the missing children and later combine to find the murderer, so that the children will be safe. These pairings are significant to the theme as well as to the plot, for through them the two most isolated characters in the novel, Keith and Julian, find themselves feeling responsible for others and therefore daring to love.

The dichotomies between isolation and involvement, between despair and hope, between hatred and love, and between destruction and salvation are the thematic patterns on which Turtle Moon is built. Amazingly, there are actually five love stories in the novel. The only major characters who fail to be redeemed by love are Bethany Lee and her murderer, and even their tragedy is used providentially, as a means for the redemption of the others.

The most predictable of the love stories is that of Julian and Lucy. Although they begin as antagonists—Lucy desperate to save her son and Julian suspicious of him and interested only in finding the baby—it is not long before they find themselves interested in each other. At first, both of them prefer to think that what they feel is merely a sexual attraction, which they can indulge and then forget. Neither of them has planned to become emotionally involved with anyone else. After her divorce, Lucy became a writer of obituaries, thus making herself safe from the demands of the living. Indeed, it is only Keith’s existence that keeps her tied to the outside world. As for Julian, he is so obsessed with guilt that he barely speaks to other people. His occupation, like Lucy’s, has a symbolic significance. As a police tracker, he looks only at the ground, not at people’s faces. Once he has followed a trail to the lost or the guilty, Julian feels no responsibility for those he has found. He simply turns them over to others and returns to his solitary home. As far as these two adults are concerned, love is more than a May madness: It is a slow process involving choice after choice, culminating with their commitment to each other.

Keith, too, changes as the result of a commitment, but his choice is actually the matter of an instant, when in the apartment laundry room he snatches up Rachel in order to save her from the person who has murdered her mother. It takes Keith some time to realize how irrevocable his decision was. After Rachel has put her trust in him, Keith continues to be torn between his image of himself as the “meanest boy in Verity” and the fact that he is at bottom the kind of person who responds to vulnerability, whether in a baby alligator or a baby girl. Periodically, Keith tries to make himself leave Rachel, but he always fails. Like Julian, he has chosen to love.

There is an almost exact parallel between Keith’s development and that of Julian’s dog Arrow. Like Keith, Arrow had for some reason succumbed to a vicious streak in his nature, refusing to be controlled by his original owner just as Keith had refused to be controlled by Lucy. Even Julian, his present owner, considers him too savage to be trusted. Arrow, however, responds to Keith’s vulnerability just as Keith had responded to Rachel’s. For the first time, the dog is able to love, and at the end of the novel, it is Arrow who heroically sacrifices himself for his master and in the process teaches Keith even more about the selfless nature of love.

The other two love stories in Turtle Moon involve Bobby Cash, the young cousin of Julian who had been killed twenty years before. Bobby is still lingering at the site of the car crash, in hopes that Julian will return and accept his forgiveness. The unaging Bobby is still susceptible to feminine attractions, and he falls in love with a living girl, Shannon Bass. Although their relationship is limited, Bobby is able to make Shannon aware of his presence. When she kisses him, or the tree where he is imprisoned, Bobby’s final earthly desire is fulfilled, and although she does not really understand what has happened, Shannon is freed from apathy and propelled toward a purposeful life.

Finally, Julian must restore the relationship between himself and his cousin. Since Bobby’s spirit is still present in Verity, it is clear that the breach between the men is the result not of Bobby’s death but of Julian’s guilt about his part in it. When at last Julian finds the courage to go to the accident site, he looks up, sees Bobby, and knows that he is forgiven. Only then is Julian free to love Lucy.

Turtle Moon is an aesthetically satisfying work because Hoffman’s style is so precise, her tone so skillfully varied, her convoluted plot so carefully controlled, and the thematic patterns woven around her characters so fascinating. It is also a memorable book, primarily because of its profoundly spiritual basis. Although Alice Hoffman does not pretend that the process of redemption is easy or that the commitment to love another is always safe, her faith in redemption through love is both heartwarming and convincing.

Bibliography

“Alice Hoffman.” Current Biography 53 (September, 1992): 14-18. This biography identifies the major developments and influences in Hoffman’s career. It emphasizes her ability to write convincingly and compassionately about Americans of nearly all ages and social strata and to make ordinary life seem magical.

Hunnewell, Susannah. “Florida Is a Character.” The New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1992, 1. This brief profile of Hoffman includes comments on how the landscape of Florida inspired her. She explains that she considers it a character in Turtle Moon.

Telgen, Diane. “Alice Hoffman.” Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. A useful summary of Hoffman’s career, this reference entry lists her other books and reviews of her work. It also provides a brief biography and a discussion of the central themes of her fiction.

Form and Content

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The central plot of Turtle Moon follows Lucy Rosen’s and Julian Cash’s efforts to solve the murder of Bethany Lee as well as the development of their own relationship. The novel also emphasizes the problems that women face after divorce, especially child custody and single parenting. The story is set in motion when Bethany flees Great Neck with her baby in an effort to protect herself and the child from her former husband. When Bethany is murdered and her baby disappears, Julian is called in to track the baby. Lucy soon learns that her son, Keith, has also disappeared, and Julian starts tracking him, also. Along with tracing the mystery surrounding Bethany’s murder, the novel explores the mystery of human relationships. In the relationships between Bethany and Randy, Lucy and Julian, and Keith and Arrow, Hoffman shows the difficulties of understanding oneself and others.

Hoffman establishes a mysterious, almost supernatural mood in the first chapter, which explains that strange things always happen in Verity in the month of May, including the events covered in the novel. Hoffman also establishes several points of tension in the early chapters, including Bethany’s escape into hiding, Lucy’s worries about Keith, and Julian’s feeling of being haunted by his own past. When Lucy learns that her neighbor, whom she knows as Karen Wright, has been murdered and that both the neighbor’s baby and her own son have disappeared, she fears that Keith will be charged with the murder. She learns that “Karen Wright” was a pseudonym, and she believes that if she can find her neighbor’s true identity, she may locate the real killer and protect her son from suspicion. She knows that “Karen” had her hair done at the same salon she used to go to, so she uses her high school reunion as an excuse to return to Great Neck and try to track down “Karen’s” real identity.

As she and Julian begin working together, each is strongly attracted to the other. As their relationship grows, the narrator reveals more of Julian’s past to explain how Julian’s history of losing those he loves or being left by them has convinced him not to look for bonds with other people. His attraction to Lucy, however, draws him further into the case. He finds the children, leaves them with Miss Giles, and follows Lucy to Great Neck. When Lucy is attacked by Randy Lee, Julian rushes in to protect her. They learn that the man Randy hired to kill Bethany is now tracking the only witness to the murder. They hurry back to Verity, believing that the killer is now after Keith.

When Julian follows Lucy to Great Neck, he leaves Keith in charge of feeding Arrow, and the boy and the dog discover an instant rapport. The boy ignores Julian’s instructions and lets Arrow out of his pen, but with Keith the dog behaves well. Their relationship saves Keith’s life. When the killer tracks Keith into the woods, Arrow attacks him. Julian arrives and sees that the dog has lost control. He shoots Arrow. Although Keith is heartbroken over the loss of his dog, he is also now ready to get on with his life.

Julian, too, has come to terms with himself. He feels a connection with Keith, who reminds him of himself, and he begins to understand his own childhood better. Although he does not expect the relationship to continue, his love affair with Lucy has also helped him face some of his own fears. He finally returns to the Burger King parking lot, where he confronts his past: As a teenager, Julian crashed his car into the gumbo-limbo tree in the parking lot, killing his cousin Bobby. He is finally able to release both his own spirit and that of the Angel, who is Bobby’s ghost.

Over the course of the novel, Lucy comes to understand her son better, in part through her relationship with Julian. She also learns that she can do some things she had not thought she could do, such as confront a murderer. She decides to let Keith return to Great Neck to live with his father, and although she knows she will miss him, she also determines to make the most of her own life, including her relationship with Julian.

The novel includes several subplots that complicate the story line but also help develop the theme of the mystery of human relationships. For example, in several chapters focusing on the Angel, the narrator describes how he falls in love with a teenage girl who comes to sit under the gumbo-limbo tree and sort out her life. His love for her reflects both his own longing for life and his nostalgia for his past, which had included a romance with the girl’s mother. The girl seems to sense this feeling, and she takes on the Angel’s longing for escape as she decides to leave Verity and go to college.

Context

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With Turtle Moon, Hoffman joins the growing ranks of American women mystery writers, a field that includes authors such as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. Like the works of these novelists, Turtle Moon features a female character who is acting independently to solve a mystery, even though Lucy is not a detective and is, at times, aided by Julian. Although Julian provides protection, it is Lucy who locates the murderer.

Although two of the three central characters in this novel are male, the plot emphasizes three key issues for contemporary women: the problems associated with divorce, violence against women, and the concept that men and women may approach relationships differently.

Although it does not ignore the economic problems associated with divorce that have dominated feminist discussion of the issue, the novel emphasizes the emotional difficulty of single parenting. The novel features several divorced women who are rearing their children alone, and the relationship between Lucy and Keith places this problem at the heart of the novel.

In addition, the novel highlights the problem of violence against women by focusing on Bethany’s murder. Randy Lee uses violence against his wife first in an attempt to claim custody of their child and later as a means of revenge. Later, he also threatens Lucy with violence. Although he is not represented as a “typical” male, his behavior does suggest that men too often use physical force against the women in their lives.

Hoffman also develops the idea that women and men approach relationships differently, a concept that has been examined in the psychological research of Nancy Chodorow, in Deborah Tannen’s writing about how men and women use language, and in a large number of popular psychology books.

Bibliography

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“Alice Hoffman.” Current Biography 53 (September, 1992): 14-18. This biography identifies the major developments and influences in Hoffman’s career. It emphasizes her ability to write convincingly and compassionately about Americans of nearly all ages and social strata and to make ordinary life seem magical.

Hunnewell, Susannah. “Florida Is a Character.” The New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1992, 1. This brief profile of Hoffman includes comments on how the landscape of Florida inspired her. She explains that she considers it a character in Turtle Moon.

Telgen, Diane. “Alice Hoffman.” Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. A useful summary of Hoffman’s career, this reference entry lists her other books and reviews of her work. It also provides a brief biography and a discussion of the central themes of her fiction.

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