Source of book: Audiobook from the library
This book is one in our series of not-particularly-systematic quest to read a lot of Newbery Award winners and honorable mentions. This book falls into the second category, named as an honor book for 2011.
Author Jennifer Holm based the book loosely on the stories her great- grandmother told her of growing up on Key West during the Great Depression. Some of the characters are based on various relatives, and some of the incidents come from the stories. Not all, though, as the book has more of a narrative arc and drama than the originals. The buried treasure incident, for example, came from tales told by the Key West denizens (the “Conchs.”)
The basic gist is this: “Turtle” (we never learn her real name - or that of most of the other characters) is an eleven-year-old girl who is sent by her mother to live with her aunt and uncle in Key West. As we learn, this is just one twist in the hard life that Turtle’s mother has had. She got pregnant by a boy in Key West, was disowned by her rather vicious mother, and left, never to return. About all she can get for work is that of live-in housekeeper for rich people - and her latest employer will not permit children, so off Turtle goes. (This was pretty common in that day, actually. And it remains common in low income and immigrant communities. The idea that communities care for each other is one of the things that has been largely lost in middle class white suburbia…)
Turtle’s arrival comes as a shock to her Aunt Minnie - who didn’t receive the letter, because the local postal service misdirected it. But, she finds room for Turtle. Along with her aunt and uncle (who is mostly away working on the highway - one of the WPA projects), there are a bunch of boy cousins, and other local urchins. Turtle has to find a way to fit in, and find her place in Key West.
The book is full of local flavor - Holm draws on a universe of friends and family for help in getting the details of the past right. I was drooling at different points when the food was described. Particularly the tropical fruit. Other things were less attractive. Holm is up front that the Depression caused the economy of the Keys to collapse - and most residents were on aid in the 1930s. Rum running was a significant source of income, and everyone looked the other way. Financial hardship affected nearly everyone, and bootstraps weren’t enough.
Holm also writes complex characters. Turtle has to learn to be vulnerable - her hard life has led her to be cynical - and admittedly even within the story, she is given ample cause. Her cousins respond to her like you would expect real kids to. Nobody likes being displaced, and “Beans” is no exception. Aunt Minnie is stressed out already, so she alternates between compassion and irritation, like most of us would in a similar circumstance. There are few if any true villains, and no angels either. Just humans.
One of the more striking elements of the book is the group of boys that Beans heads. They are known as the “Diaper Gang.” Because they have made a business of assisting harried parents with their babies. They show up, swaddle the babies, and drag them around town in a wagon until they sleep. Or at least for a while so that the parents can have a break. The boys are actually quite good at it, and (amusingly) are unwilling to let a girl join them, because, well, girls aren’t as good at that sort of thing. (Holm apparently isn’t giving a modern gloss to this - the idea came from one of her great-grandmother’s tales. It is a reminder that the division of men’s and women’s work hasn’t always fallen along the same lines everywhere or at every time.) There isn’t money in this business, though - nobody has that to spare. However, the boys are given candy for their trouble.
The book is recommended for ages 8 to 12, which is probably about right. In my case, my 6 year old enjoyed it. And my older girls did too, in large part because of the humor, which takes the edge off what would otherwise be a tale of hardship and betrayal as much as it is of love and family. I also think this book succeeds at two of the main goals of fiction: it transports the reader to an unfamiliar time and place, and it encourages empathy for those in other circumstances.
The audiobook was narrated by Becca Battoe, who apparently was on Scrubs at one point. She is a pleasant enough reader - I have no complaints about her part of the recording. I was a bit irritated by the gaps between certain paragraphs. This is obviously a sound engineering issue, as I’m sure the book wasn’t read in a single take. A minor fault, but one amplified by the nature of listening to a CD in a vehicle: you can’t tell if there is a natural gap or if the CD has skipped. On the other hand, the relative volume levels were well balanced.