Jennifer D's Reviews > The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
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Mar 13, 10

bookshelves: library-borrow
Read in March, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a rare find. The concept intrigued me – a young girl living at the end of the 19th century finds herself caught between the worlds of her mother’s expectations for her life (which involves a lot of knitting and cooking) and the passion for scientific discovery she discovers in the pages of Mr. Darwin’s books and her grandfather’s laboratory. The concept got me to pick up the book, and the first line had me hooked – “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.” By the end of the first page, I knew I was in for a treat. Author Jacqueline Kelly has captured that palpable descriptive style reminiscent of Harper Lee that transports the reader into another world. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate has that brilliant mix of character development, rich description and vocabulary, and historical allusion that is sure to land it a quick spot on middle school required reading lists, but which also guarantees a truly delightful read.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee, is the only girl of seven children growing up in rural Texas at the turn of the last century. Her brothers (all named after heroes of the Texas fight for Independence) run wild, her mother takes frequent doses of her “tonic” to cope with the chaos, and her grandfather remains aloof sequestered away in his laboratory or library. And while her mother is trying to train her into becoming a proper lady, Callie Vee would rather spend her days observing insects, collecting strange plants, and making scientific observations in her notebook. She follows her grandfather on his outings to collect specimens by the river and helps him with his observations and experiments. She is fascinated by the natural world, incessantly wondering why it works the way it does. What she is far less interested in are tasks like knitting socks, learning to cook, practicing piano, and going to school to learn decorum and handiwork. Her deepest dream that she is too afraid to even voice is to attend the University someday to become a scientist. But since the only working women she has known are schoolteachers and the switchboard operator for her town’s one telephone, she doesn’t even know if women can be scientists. The beauty of her passion for the natural world and the absurdity of the restrictions placed on her because she is a girl set the tension of the novel, which ends on a hopeful yet ambiguous note.

I like the character of Callie Vee because she fits right into her time. She isn’t a committed feminist ahead of her time, nor did the author rewrite history in order to fit a strong female personality. No, Callie Vee is simply a young girl discovering her world and her passions and running up against the constraints of gender. There is no sermonizing on the evils of sexism, just the reflection from the perspective of an 11 year old about how certain aspects of society just don’t seem fair. This isn’t an anachronistic story that has her overcoming the injustices of the world, but neither is it a defeating story about her dreams being crushed. Callie Vee, like most spunky girls, pushes her boundaries where she can and lives to the fullest otherwise.

It is a rare and wonderful novel that I would highly recommend to anyone. It crosses age and gender boundaries and will be appreciated and loved by so many. It would be a great read-aloud book for families with younger children, is perfect for kids aged 10 and older to read independently and is a novel for adults - offering an opportunity to be in touch with a book that could become a classic in the years to come while having some time to recapture the feelings and emotions of our younger selves.
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03/12/2010 page 29
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