Top critical review
A fun (if a bit short) story about holding onto hope
Reviewed in the United States on May 6, 2022
Ever since a librarian friend of mine recommended "The Fourteenth Goldfish" to me, I've been steadily making my way through Jennifer L. Holm's other works; being continuously impressed with the way she depicts both the mundane and the fantastic through a child's perspective. So I dove into this book with the same level of enthusiasm...only to find it just...okay.
It's the summer of 1935, and a young girl nicknamed Turtle is being sent off to stay with her aunt and cousins in Key West, Florida. Her mom (who works odd hours as a housekeeper) has big dreams of marrying the latest guy in her revolving door of boyfriends and saving up enough money to buy a proper house. But with seemingly no end to the Great Depression in sight, Turtle has hardened herself to the truths of the world, and wishes her mom would get her head out of the clouds already. Things only seem to get worse when she arrives at her aunt's house and meets her unruly cousins, including mischief-making Beans and his partner in crime Pork Chop; Kermit, who's recovering from an illness and has a weak heart; and four year old Buddy, who's constantly having accidents and getting in the way. But the longer she stays, the more Turtle begins to learn her extended family's secrets. And when she comes across a supposed map to buried pirate treasure, Turtle will learn that sometimes it takes an eccentric family to find that happy ending reserved for the movies.
For such a short story (you can read the whole thing in an afternoon), it packs quite a bit into it; painting a perfect picture of what life was like in the 1930s. (Real life photos and stories are even included in the author's afterward.) While many things have changed over the decades, many others have stayed the same (both the good and bad). Turtle, her cousins, and all the Key West residents are an eccentric bunch, and will no doubt remind you of friends and relatives you grew up with. And with each wacky misadventure, Turtle (and we the audience) will begin to see that sometimes people with a rough exterior turn out to be the kindest of all, and conversely, those with the biggest smiles may actually be hiding a cold and selfish interior.
However, after being impressed with this author's previous works, I found this book to be a bit lacking in substance by comparison. There's nothing wrong with it, but I thought many of the characters deserved to be fleshed out just a bit more, and there's a couple things that are set up early on, but are never fully explained or paid off. And the ending is not only an emotional gut punch, but is also a bit abrupt. Still, it leaves the reader with the lesson that life isn't like the movies, but sometimes, dreams CAN come true, just not in the exact way we think.
While this is still a very enjoyable romp, if you want to read a story about childhood in a bygone era with more emotional weight to it (and by the same author no less), read "Penny from Heaven."