Book: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Author: Jacqueline Kelly
Age Range: 12 and up
This is book # 2 read for MotherReader's 2009 48 Hour Book Challenge (the first read in full). It took almost exactly 3 hours to read, and 35 minutes to review.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a fine example of historical fiction. Calpurnia Tate turns twelve in 1899. She's the only girl in her family, with three older brothers and three younger brothers, living on a cotton farm in central Texas. She's a tomboy who resists the conventional interest for girls of the time (sewing and cooking), to the chagrin of her mother. Calpurnia's life is changed forever when her older brother, Harry, noticing her scientific approach to solving a problem, gives her a notebook to record her scientific observations. Harry also gives Calpurnia a much greater gift when her steers her towards their formidable Grandfather. Once Granddaddy realized that Calpurnia has the true nature of a natural scientist, the old man takes Calpurnia under his wing, and begins to teach her things. Calpurnia's world expands, as she learns about Darwin and the Scientific Method. But she faces a constant struggle between her growing dreams, and the expectations for girls of her time.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is filled with historical tidbits about the turn of the last century. Every fact feels organic to the text, because the reader sees them from Calpurnia's perspective. Central Texas comes through clearly (from the impact of the heat, in a time before air-conditioning, to the boys with names like Sam Houston and Lamar). Here's one of my favorite scenes, in which Calpurnia and her brother Travis try a "new drink Coca-Cola" for the first time:
"We carefully carried our fizzing drinks outside. Travis lifted his to drink and exclaimed, "Oh! It tickles!" I held mine up and felt the bubbles dancing against my lips, then sipped it, feeling it burn in my throat, raw and sweet and unlike anything I'd had before. We could you ever drink milk or water again after this." (Page 282)
There are also first-hand recollections of the Civil War, related by Granddaddy to Calpurnia, but again, in a very personal, non-didactic sort of way. Remnants of the pre-Civil War world are apparent, too - an old slave quarters on the family property, a servant who has limited rights because she is an Octoroon. This background is set against the sense of progress and excitement that came with the turn of the century. Calpurnia sees her first automobile, and hears her first telephone ring, both major events in the family's small town.
Calpurnia displays an occasional flair for apt and creative description (not so much as to be improbable - just enough to entertain, particularly in reference to her brothers). For example, a reference to her "pestiferous" brothers, and:
"Three days later, I crept downstairs and went out onto the front porch very early before the daily avalanche of my brothers could crack open the peace of the morning." (Page 22)
She also gets right to the heart of things, sometimes:
"The others, Homer, Hero, and Zeus, were strictly Outside Dogs. They all knew this, but it didn't stop them from good-naturedly crowding the front door every time it opened, every single time, despite the fact that they were never--ever--let into the house. I loved this particularly fine thing about the dogs: Despite a lifetime of denied entrance, hope never died in their hearts." (Page 53)
The publisher bills this one for ages 12 and up, and there's definitely a coming-of-age feel to the book. Still, I would think that it would be fine for strong readers a bit younger, too. There is an Anne Shirley-like scene involving innocently imbibed alcohol, and some harsh realities about the ultimate purpose of many animals on a farm, but nothing directly untoward.
It's impossible to read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate without pulling for Calpurnia, and wondering how in the world she's going to pull off the difficult task of becoming a woman scientist. And knowing that the world will be a better place if she succeeds. Recommended for strong girls everywhere (though in truth, there's a lot of scientific background about bugs and moths and the like, which clearly boys will enjoy, too).
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: May 12, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.