April 30, 2012
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Calpurnia is a bit of a tomboy and its no wonder. She’s one of seven children and the only girl. Not that she’s into what we consider tomboy activities, but she isn’t a girly girl and this a big deal. Why? Because it is 1899 and the Tate’s are a well-to-do Texas cotton growing family. There are expectations.
For the most part, Calpurnia’s tom boy interests come through in her relationship with her grandfather. Grandfather no longer runs the farm, having handed that over to Daddy, but spends his time in scientific pursuits. He is a naturalists who walks the countryside for hours every day, observing everything from the local deer to the smallest micro-organisms in the water. His ambition is to find a new species.
Having made a few observations of her own, Calpurnia needs help to take her knowledge any farther and the only person she can turn to is Grandfather, but none of the children know him particularly well and he, in turn, can only distinguish Calpurnia from the crowd. Not only does he answer her questions, she is soon trailing him and helping him collect specimen from insects to plant life. Upon closer examination at home, one plant seems to have an unusual leaf pattern. Is this vetch a new species? To be sure, they need to find a second specimen but Callie failed to note the location. Can she find it again?
Even as Callie discovers the wonders of her grandfather’s scientific mind and the world around her, the twelve year old discovers just how narrow her world may become. As the only daughter, she is the focus of her mother’s ambitions from “coming out” in society to cooking and the other womanly arts.
To her credit, Jacqueline Kelly doesn’t make things easy for Callie. Her mother is horrified by Callie’s lack of skill in cooking and sewing and blocks some of the girl’s time with Grandfather. But her oldest brother, knowing that his own plans don’t coincide with what his parents want for him, agrees to support her even if neither one of them know what this might entail.
Kelly doesn’t limit herself to exploring society’s expectations of Callie but also shows the struggle that one of her brother’s has with what is expected of a farm boy.
I don’t want to give away any more of the plot but suffice it to say that this book really pulled me in. The character’s voice is strong and compelling — she’s a curious girl who wants more out of life.
Boy readers who are interested in nature and science will find something to like in this character although they may be put off by the cover which shows Callie’s cut paper silhouette against a colored background. True to her time, the cover (which I actually like) is attractive but doesn’t hint at the fire in this character’s heart.