Monday, August 24, 2009
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
The second that I saw this cover at ALA in Denver, I knew I wanted to read this book. The title, the illustrations, everything called out to me. Unfortunately, there were no arcs left while I was on the floor, but I kept thinking about it. Now, loving a cover and title has backfired on me before, but I was hoping that this time would be different. A few reviews popped up in the blogs and I knew for sure that I wanted to read it, so I ordered my copy and waited for it to arrive!
It’s 1899 and Calpurnia is wilting away in rural Texas. She is eleven years old and the only girl in a family with 7 children. When her oldest, and favorite brother Harry hears about Callie’s inventive way to find earthworms in the packed Texas earth, he gives her a red leather notebook to record her findings and Callie’s summer as a naturalist truly begins.
One of the first things that she notices is that there is a new kind of grasshopper around. There were the quick emerald green ones that Callie has seen every summer, but there are also big, bright yellow ones. Callie asks everyone in her house (except for her formidable grandfather who lives with them, but tends to keep to himself studying in his laboratory) about the yellow hoppers, but nobody else has any knowledge of them at all. So Callie screws up her courage and goes to grandfather’s laboratory in order to ask him if in all his years he has seen the yellow grasshoppers before. His answer? “I suspect that a smart young whip like you can figure it out. Come back and tell me when you have.” (p.11) Callie figures that if her grandfather cannot help her, maybe Mr. Charles Darwin can, so she begs a ride into town from her brother for a trip to the library.
The librarian, however, is quite offended over Callie’s request. Without any help from grandfather or Mr. Darwin, Callie has only her own wits to help her out. After spending more time thinking about it, Callie does figure it out. Once she gets the nerve up to speak with her grandfather again, she tells him about her discovery. Her grandfather is quite impressed that Callie has figured this out on her own, and has her follow him into his library, where the children are never allowed. He hands Calpurnia his copy of The Origin of Species and at that moment, Calpurnia and her grandfather are bonded together as scientists.
Grandfather starts taking Calpurnia on his daily outings to gather specimens, brings her in on his experiments trying to distill drinkable spirits from pecans, and he begins to tell her about the World. Over time, Callie really feels like she is a scientist. She can’t help but be disinterested in the handicrafts and cooking in which her best friend Lula seems to excel. But while her grandfather believes that Calpurnia can be a scientist, her mother has other ideas, and is soon imposing cooking and knitting lessons, and letting Calpurnia know that she will be expected to “come out” as the only girl in the Tate family. Callie feels so confused; will she have to put aside all of her aspirations in order to be a wife someday? Will she have to be like her mother, with a passel of children, taking doses of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound just to get by?
Jacqueline Kelly has written a piece of historical fiction with depth, detail and characters that leap off the page. From the first telephone coming to town, to Callie’s grandfather’s first time sitting in an automobile, to the kerosene powered “wind machine”, readers will find themselves immersed in the sweeping changes that were happening at the dawn of the 20th century. Social commentary on class and slavery are worked in naturally, and the bold idea of evolution is front and center in the story. The heartbreaking aspect of Callie’s position of being a girl is perfectly placed and I hope that young readers will ponder their own privilege and position, or even the lack thereof upon reading this book. I slowed down at the end, simply because I wasn’t ready to let go of Calpurnia.