The spunky girl heroine. She’s an enduring character in our middle grade fiction. From 1928’s The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry to Caddie Woodlawn and Roller Skates, historical fiction and so-called tomboys go together like cereal and milk. It would be tempting then to view The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as just one more in a long line of spunkified womenfolk. True and not true. Certainly Calpurnia chaffs against the restrictions of her time, but debut novelist Jacqueline Kelly has given us an intriguing, even mesmerizing glimpse into the mind of a girl who has the one thing her era won’t allow: ambition.
It’s 1899 and eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is the sole and single girl child in a family full of six brothers. She is generally ignored until one day she asks her grandfather a question: Where did the huge yellow grasshoppers that appeared during the unusually hot summer come from? Grandfather, an imposing figure the children usually avoid, merely says that he’s sure she’ll figure it out on her own. Only when she does exactly that does he begin to take an interest in her. Before long Calpurnia finds herself a naturalist in the making. Grandfather teaches her about evolution and the natural world, which is wonderful, but it’s really not the kind of thing a girl of her age and era would learn. Between adventures involving her brothers, her friends, and a whole new species of plant, Calpurnia must come to terms with what she is and what the world expects her to be. Ms. Kelly prefaces each chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Now female spunk does not appear out of nowhere. One of the reasons I was so disappointed in the book Red Moon at Sharpsburg was because you essentially had a spunky ahead-of-her-times female existing in a vacuum. You can’t have your character say that corsets restrict the mind if they haven’t been talking or reading something along those lines before. What’s so great about Callie is that she is different because she has been cared for and nurtured by a grandfather that treats her not just as a girl with intelligence, but as an equal. Sometimes this is a comically bad idea, like when he offers her the first taste of a distilled pecan liquor, but often it is exactly what Calpurnia’s brain needs. And this book almost becomes a kind of detective novel as you watch Callie take a scientific question (like what the floating creature is in her grandfather’s study) and work her way through the problem. With her grandfather’s encouragement she soaks up his attention and intelligent conversation and blossoms (after all, she isn’t any good at normal feminine pursuits of the time period anyway). And it’s what she’s blossoming into that disturbs her mother so much.
It’s too easy to turn a parent into a villain when they work against a protagonist’s hopes and dreams. Particularly when those hopes and dreams are at odds with the norms of the day. In this case the primary antagonist in this book is Callie’s sweet but determined-to-make-her-daughter-a-lady mother. Fortunately for us, Kelly’s handling of Calpurnia’s mom is delicate. This is a woman who drinks a restorative tonic (read: alcohol) on the side to make her days go by faster. She has birthed seven children and most of them are male. The result is that she probably wants to feel some kind of kinship with her one and only daughter, but what happens instead? Callie is interested in what would typically be considered male pursuits. Is it any wonder she feels somewhat abandoned by her girl, even if it’s on a subconscious level?
I want to fight against making assumptions about an author before I read their book. So whenever I get a new title from someone I don’t know, I tend to avoid reading a plot blurb or biography of the writer. Now if you had asked me, just as I finished the last page of Calpurnia Tate who Jacqueline Kelly was, I probably would have said she was a born and bred Texan. I would have guessed that her family had lived there for years and that she had creosote and red Texan dirt swimming in her corpuscles. Fact of the matter is, Ms. Kelly’s a transplanted New Zealander/Canadian. Yup. She also happens to be a practicing physician, a fact that makes me feel even better about Calpurnia’s scientific leanings.
I wasn’t crazy for thinking she was Texan, though. Listen to the first two sentences in her book: “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch.” Ms. Kelly is also quite good at turning the commonplace into the epic. The war between a cat and a possum never leads to bloodshed, only a ridiculous pattern that Calpurnia notes in her books. “Neither I nor the adversaries ever fatigued of it. How satisfying to have a bloodless war in which each side was equally convinced of its own triumph.” The writing in this book manages to do the difficult double duty of being both interesting and poetic. It’s the golden combination many authors dream of achieving.
I was left with only one question by the end of the tale. At one point Callie’s beloved older brother is smitten by a truly horrid Miss Minerva Goodacre. I will not give away the method by which she is dispatched only to say that it is thanks to grandfather. But what it is that grandfather does is a bit of a mystery, and one that is never explained. It is the only mystery of its kind in the book too. Often Ms. Kelly will drop key bits of information into the tale so that the older readers will understand what’s going on and the younger readers will miss it entirely. I am thinking of a moment when Calpurnia’s younger brother Travis grows too fond of the family’s turkeys and it’s up to grandfather and Calpurnia to find a solution.
I’ve heard some people compare this book to Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm. Both books feature spunky (there’s that word again) female protagonists growing up in families that consist primarily of brothers. This may be similar on the surface, but underneath Ms. Kelly has conjured up an entirely new and wonderful tale. And with its spirited ending, I’ve little doubt that there may someday be a sequel. Jacqueline Kelly takes a wealthy turn of the 20th century girl and turns her into someone we can all admire. Consider pairing this book with The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages or Linda Sue Park’s Project Mulberry if you’re interested in reading more than one middle grade novel out there involving girls who love science. Absolutely delightful.
On shelves May 12th.
Notes on the Cover: Beautiful, yes. We will none of us disagree with that. But let me examine for just a moment how perfectly it captures the book as well. Snaking its way around the side are plants native to Texas. And hidden within such plants are objects and animals accurate and important to the plot. When silhouettes are involved in children’s middle grade covers it’s best if the artist has read the book in some manner. David Franklin’s work on The Cabinet of Wonders is a good example of this. Now Calpurnia is too. The silhouette artist in question is one Beth White. You can see more of her amazing art here. Here’s hoping she does more children’s covers in the future. I mean, she even got Callie’s messy braid right!
First Sentence: "By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat."
Facts Learned: Did you know Texans call tent worms “webworms” in their part of the country? *shudder*
The Write Stuff blogged a very interesting fact about this title: "Jacqueline Kelly of Austin sold her first novel to Holt. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate will be published in the spring of 2009. She won the 2002 Manuscript Contest Mainstream Fiction category with the first chapter of this book." That’s a seven year gap between winning the contest and publishing the book. Hoocheemama!
In this Q&A Ms. Kelly discusses everything from the inspiration of this book to Callie’s future (hmm… maybe that sequel isn’t the sure thing I thought it was . . .)