Behind the Book: Family stories lead to Key West novel
by Jennifer L. Holm
This book started out with a story my mom liked to tell about her childhood. She grew up in New Jersey with her mother and maternal grandparents. Her grandmother (Nana) was from Key West, Florida. During the summers, Nana would take my mom to Key West to visit relatives there. My mom didn’t really like going to Key West. It was a long drive by car, and Key West in July is hot and sticky and people didn’t have air conditioning back then like they do now. But strangest of all to my mom was what her mother told her to do in Key West: she was to “shake out her shoes” before she put them on. My mom didn’t know why her mother wanted her to do this, but she did it anyway. And then one day, she shook her shoes and out popped… a scorpion!
Writing Turtle in Paradise was a wonderful way to reconnect with my Key West heritage. My great-grandmother, Jennie Lewin Peck, emigrated from the Bahamas to Key West at the turn of the century. She considered herself a “Conch,” what the local Key West folks called themselves, after the native mollusk that so many fished for in the Bahamas. Nana was always talking about how she missed sugar apple ice cream and Spanish limes. When my editor, Shana Corey, started asking me about Nana and my Key West family, I just knew that there was a story somewhere in there.
Researching this book was also an interesting way to experience a different side of living through the Great Depression. While Key West suffered significant economic hardship (the town went bankrupt and the majority of the citizens were on economic relief), it didn’t have the same sort of feel as most of the depression stories I was used to hearing—soup lines, tent cities and the Dust Bowl. Key West was warm for one thing, and there was plenty of free food, courtesy of the sea; one man told me he ate lobster during the Depression! Key West was a freewheeling town full of characters and bygone industries—sponge fishing, rumrunners and, of course, pirates! It had all the ingredients for a fabulous setting.
The main character, Turtle, grew out of my fascination with Shirley Temple. To be blunt, I never really liked Shirley Temple, even when I was a kid. She was so perfect—those ringlet curls! That smile! And she could tap-dance! (Have I mentioned I was “asked” to leave ballet class when I was six?). Needless to say, Turtle shares my opinion of Shirley Temple. She’s tough and scrappy and has seen it all with her single mother.
Turtle’s mom gets a job as a live-in housekeeper and the new boss doesn’t like kids, so poor Turtle is sent to Key West to live with family she’s never met. Suddenly, Turtle is thrust into a hot, strange place full of rumors of pirate treasure and ornery boy cousins with funny nicknames. Does Turtle get a Hollywood ending like Shirley Temple? Well, you’ll have to read Turtle in Paradise to find out.
And if you happen to go to Key West, take my advice: shake out your shoes!