The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

25Aug10

Before I start I must make a confession. Yesterday Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay came out, and instead of writing this post after work last night I spent the evening compulsively reading the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy. The difference between the two books could not be more stark. Truth be told, I think I like Calpurnia Tate better.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Holt, 2009) is Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel, and it is a 2010 Newbery Honor book. This could almost be described as a sweet, innocent book, but it is far too acute in its vision to be innocent, and the bitter is not glazed over in favor of the sweet.

from Macmillan.com

The year is 1899 and Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee, is about to turn twelve–both she and the world she lives in are in the midst of major transitions. The story begins in the unrelenting Texas heat, and we listen to the grasshoppers whirring in the dry grass. Callie’s family–her mother, father, grandfather and six brothers–lives in a tiny rural town where her grandfather is revered as a hero and the builder of the town’s major employer, the cotton gin. Grandpa has withdrawn from the business and the family’s pecan orchard, ceding these responsibilities to Callie’s father, and he’s withdrawn from the family. He spends his days in a shack in the back of the house, his workshop, where he studies nature and secretively tries to distill drinkable whisky from pecans. He is a Naturalist in the true, late 19th century meaning of the word. He corresponds with Charles Darwin and is a member of the National Geographic Society.

But Callie is our narrator, and she’s an astute and enthusiastic observer of cats, opossums, bugs and family members. Callie Vee comes to her grandfather asking about the difference between the smaller, faster green grasshoppers that are easier to catch and the larger yellow ones that seem slow, but can’t be caught. Her grandfather sends her back out to answer her own question, and when she does, their relationship begins. Through the next months we come to know her and her grandfather well as they discover the limitations that fin de siecle Texas place on Callie Vee’s present and future, and the changes that her love for science and for her grandfather make in her aspirations for the future.

Jacqueline Kelly avoids the pitfall common in historical fiction with a woman protagonist: Callie Vee is a girl of her own time. She has aspirations to be independent and become a scientist, but when she sees an advertisement for a switchboard operator, a woman who makes her own money and can live on her own she’s enchanted, and pretends with her classmates to run her own switchboard. Her aspirations to become a scientist are not born of modern sensibilities miraculously transported back in time, they come from her situation–she is lousy at housewifery, has an insatiable curiosity and a grandfather who’s willing to teach her and encourage her to become a scientist.

Change comes slowly to Callie Vee’s town, her family and her grandfather, as it does to her. Calpurnia’s brothers fall for her best friend and she is still not really at the “interested” stage. While the first motorcar and the first telephone make their appearance, the vestiges of slavery and racism don’t depart. They are captured here with clear-eyed subtlety. And, while grandfather opens up to Calpurnia and subtly intervenes in family crises, he still toasts Calpurnia at a family dinner as his “only grandchild” (yes, with her six brothers present).

This is a warm honest book that looks at Calpurnia Tate, her family and her world with respect and with love. Highly Recommended. Target group is nominally 8-12, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a 14 year old.

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