Turtle in Paradise

by Jennifer Holm

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Chapters 1–3 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

Chapter 1

Turtle, the first-person narrator, begins by observing that while adults often think children are sweet, in truth “kids are rotten.” She is thinking particularly of the dirty-looking children in the rusty pickup truck driving in front of her, one of whom keeps blowing spit balls at the windscreen with a straw.

It is June 1935, and Turtle is traveling with her cat, Smokey, in a Ford Model A, driven by Mr. Edgit, a bald man who has invented a hair serum, which Turtle thinks must grow invisible hair. Mr. Edgit is a friend of her mother’s latest boyfriend, Archie, and is taking her to live with her Aunt Minerva, whom she has never met, in Key West. Turtle’s mother works as a housekeeper and has no home of her own. Her latest employer thinks children are noisy and does not want Turtle staying in her house.

Turtle’s mother says that she will love living with her aunt, but Turtle, who does not share her mother’s romantic, optimistic view of life, is skeptical. She says that her mother has been watching too many Hollywood movies, which have led her to believe in the kind of happy endings which do not exist in real life.

Chapter 2

When Turtle and Mr. Edgit finally reach Key West after days of traveling and a delayed ferry ride, Turtle is not impressed by her new home. Her mother had described Key West as a tropical paradise, but Turtle finds it hot, humid, squalid, and dirty. They eventually find Aunt Minerva’s house, but Turtle does not receive a warm welcome. Aunt Minerva says that she knows nothing about any letter from Turtle’s mother and is not expecting her.

Turtle’s cousin Beans, who, like her, is eleven years old, is sitting outside the house on a porch swing. He continually insults and goads Mr. Edgit, making fun of his baldness and the fact that his name sounds like “idiot.” Mr. Edgit leaves in exasperation, and Aunt Minerva reluctantly accepts that Turtle will be living with her for the foreseeable future. She asks Beans to help Turtle with her bag and goes inside the house to attend to her youngest child, Buddy, who is crying for attention. Beans flips over Turtle’s suitcase, scattering her belongings all over the porch and then slams the door in her face.

Chapter 3

Turtle goes inside the house and asks where she should sleep. Aunt Minerva tells her she can have Beans’s room, and he will sleep with his brothers. Turtle meets her other two cousins, Kermit, a small boy of nine or ten who wears crooked glasses, and Buddy, a child of four. They are friendlier than Beans, who soon comes in with his dog, Termite, which attacks Turtle’s cat, Smokey. Chaos ensues, and Aunt Minerva orders all the children, together with the dog and the cat, out of the house.

As they are all sitting on the front porch, a boy comes down the street on a battered bike. He is called Pork Chop, a name that complements that of Beans. An older man also joins them from across the street. He gives them a letter, mistakenly delivered to him, on the envelope of which Turtle recognizes her mother’s handwriting. The man, whose name is Jelly, refers to the children as “the Diaper Gang.” They have gained this name because they look after babies in exchange for candy.


The first sentence of Turtle in Paradise establishes the distinctive voice of the first-person narrator:

Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to...

(This entire section contains 869 words.)

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know the truth: kids are rotten.

The eleven-year-old Turtle is skeptical and sarcastic, often verging on cynical. She has gained her name from the hard shell with which she covers her vulnerability and from her tendency to snap. The necessity for these defense mechanisms quickly becomes clear. Turtle’s mother is a romantic, unrealistic woman who believes that life is like a Hollywood movie. She has had various romantic relationships, and Turtle knows nothing about her father. Turtle, therefore, has had to be strong and stable, reversing roles in order to care for her somewhat childlike mother. Her mother’s job as a servant to various wealthy families has increased Turtle’s feeling of instability and her defensive tendencies, as she has generally been treated as an inferior by her mother’s employers and their children.

The reader’s sense of the precariousness of Turtle’s existence only increases when she reaches the ramshackle home of her aunt, who is not expecting her. Her eldest cousin, Beans, is openly hostile in his treatment of her, and this hostility increases when he learns that he must give up his room for her to sleep in. Their mutual antagonism is also reflected in the attacks his dog, Termite, continually makes on her cat, Smokey. However, the author often points out that though Turtle’s life is hard and uncertain, this is the case for most people during the Great Depression. Many people in America are inadequately housed and fed, particularly in Key West, a poor area in which there are many recent immigrants.


Chapters 4–6 Summary and Analysis