Saturday, July 20, 2013

Historical Fiction: THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Kelly, Jacqueline.  2009.  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
ISBN 13-978-0-8050-8841-0
Set in 1899, in south central Texas, Calpurnia Tate is 11 years old, nearly 12.  She is the only girl in a family with 7 children.  In the course of a year, as the turn of the century approaches, she learns about science from her grandfather, an amateur naturalist, and watches her brothers begin to show interest in girls.  She loves studying nature and grows very close to her grandfather.  Her mother, however, becomes concerned with her gallivanting around the country and messing with insects and sets out to teach her only daughter how to be a lady.  Ladies weren’t scientists—not then, not there.  Calpurnia runs into the reality of being a girl in that era.  She is encouraged by her grandfather to learn all she can about all manner of topics, but realizes over the course of the novel that the world had conspired to ensure she would be solely a mother, a wife, and a domestic provider.  Slowly, she realizes her hatred of all things domestic is a disappointment to her mother, and she questions whether she should be expected to change who she is, or even if she can.  The title is a clever reference to all the changes Calpurnia experiences as she studies science with her grandfather based on Darwin's methodology and yet still must somehow adapt or adjust to her own environment as a young female in 1899.


Calpurnia is spunky and determined, very much like many girls in today’s world, making her easy for readers to identify with.  It is as if she had never even realized she would be expected to marry and “settle down” until near the end of the book.  The plot is a gentle, blossoming story of a girl exploring her world and her own possibilities (and lack thereof). 

Some of the episodic stories do not necessarily contribute to the main storyline of the possible new species of plant found by Calpurnia and her grandfather, but they all build towards Calpurnia’s growing up.  For example, when her favorite big brother experiences his first real crush, Calpurnia, his special pet, does not take it too well.  “’Isn’t she a corker?’ he said, in a congested voice I’d never heard before and hated instantly.  I hated HER instantly too, for I saw her plain for what She was:  a stooping harpy, a feaster on the flesh of beloved brothers.  The Destroyer of My Family’s Happiness.   Of MY happiness.  I stared at this apparition,” (74).  When Calpurnia mentions this love interest to the entire family at supper, which brings up the fact that the young lady attends a church that is in disfavor, the brother’s hurt and anger at her betrayal slices Calpurnia’s heart.  She learns not to interfere in things that are not her business.  The reader also could learn that lesson through her, as it is so emotionally presented.  Her volatile response and true grief when he refuses to speak to her draw in readers and keep them reading.

The setting is firmly created in the reader’s mind with references to historical events as well as to statements that clearly show it is from the past, such as on page 85, when Calpurnia says of Granddaddy, “Then there were his predictions for the future, how man would one day build flying machines and travel to the moon, prognostications that were met with the sly indulgence afforded old codgers, though I secretly agreed with him and could imagine it happening in a thousand years hence.”  Given that mankind did land on the moon many years ago, such a reference to most people’s incapability then to imagine such an event helps place this story firmly in the past.  Readers witness Calpurnia’s first drink of Coca-Cola, a new drink at the time, and see Grandfather’s delight in the new “auto-mobile” that is shown at the local fair, as he tries to buy it at nearly any price and is turned down.   The descriptions of the period are very detailed and allow readers to experience it for themselves, using beautiful similes and metaphors to spark the imagination. For example, the automobile, “… looked like speed incarnate, its every line carved by the wind” (284). 

However, it’s not just the time period that’s described.  Ms. Kelly describes the natural world in careful, specific language, reflecting Calpurnia’s love and reverence for the natural order of the world.  Granddaddy sees a fig beetle, and Calpurnia observes:  “It was an inch long, middling green, and otherwise unexceptional in appearance.  Granddaddy flipped it over, and I saw that its underside shone a startling greeny-blue, iridescent and shot through with purple.  The colors changed as it squirmed in dismay.  It reminded me of my mother’s abalone brooch, lovely and rare” (28).  The vivid descriptions joyously celebrate all of creation, even the tiny bugs most people never notice.  It directs a reader's attention to the marvels of nature, as well.  Anyone would be hard-pressed to read this novel and not pay more attention to the beauty of the natural world.

The theme of the novel deals both with appreciation of the natural world, but also with the role of the female in the year 1899.  The people in 1899 feel it is a new era—but Calpurnia runs smack into the reality that life is not going to be different for most  women, not for a long time.  She questions why women and men have such different roles, but is never given a very good answer.  “My grandfather had given me Mr. Darwin’s book to read.  He had given me the possibility of a different kind of life.  But none of it mattered.  Instead, there was The Science of Housewifery for me.  I was blind; I was pathetic.  The century was about to change, but my own little life would not change with it” (313).  Her angst is so real that it beats against the reader’s heart like a trapped butterfly against a glass jar. 

Times have changed since 1899…but not as much it could have.  As Dr. Vardell states in her book, Children’s Literature in Action, “The theme of a good historical novel should reflect the attitudes, values, and morals of the times, but still be relevant to today” (191).  The role of the female in our society is still very much in flux and many job opportunities are still not available for women, socially, even if they are legally.  We still have not had a female president of the United States, for example.  Girls who do not fit in with other “girly girls” will especially appreciate Calpurnia.

The author’s writing style is witty, clever and warm.  The first person point of view, from Calpurnia, lets readers see the era through the eyes of a frustrated girl, one who can also be very funny.  Ms. Kelly’s turn of phrase often uses literary allusions and fantastic similes that make it easy for readers to keep up with the story:  “I found sewing a waste of time, and I had been easing along doing the minimum.  …the long striped scarf I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit.  I fancied that a malevolent Rumpelstiltskin crept into my room at night and undid my best work, turning the gold of my efforts into pathetic dross on a wheel perversely spinning backward”  (213.)  Many times, I had to stop and admire the phrasing of Ms. Kelly and I found myself comparing her work to Harper Lee’s writing.

Each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the book that kicks off much of Calpurnia’s interest in nature, when she realizes on her own why yellow grasshoppers had grown so much bigger than the green. 

I did try listening to the audio recording of this book, but could not stand it.  The voice they chose was of the older Calpurnia, who is looking back in time.  As Calpurnia states in the book, “My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back then, everyone called me Callie Vee.  That summer, I was eleven years old and the only girl out of seven children.  Can you imagine a worse situation?”  (2).  Therefore, I understand why the voice had to be an older voice, but the rest of the story is told by the 11 year old Callie Vee.  We experience things just as she did as a child, and so in my mind, the story is being told by a girl, not a woman.  It was disconcerting and more than a bit jarring to hear the adult voice.  Additionally, I can read much faster than I can listen, and I got impatient with the slow, measured reading.  There was not much emotion put into the dialogue and the clever, quick dialogue is some of the best parts of the book.  Children, though, might prefer the audio version to reading the book, as there are a great many scientific words and phrases in this book that are difficult to decode. 

The book is aimed at grades 4-8, but I think the children in the upper part of this range would find it more suitable.  It’s a quiet, thoughtful book—so beautiful—but easily overlooked in a bookshelf filled with action and fantasy novels that more easily keep the attention of a young person.


Starred Review. "Gr 5-8-A charming and inventive story of a child struggling to find her identity at the turn of the 20th century. As the only girl in an uppercrust Texas family of seven children, Calpurnia, 11, is expected to enter young womanhood with all its trappings of tight corsets, cookery, and handiwork. Unlike other girls her age, Callie is most content when observing and collecting scientific specimens with her grandfather. Bemoaning her lack of formal knowledge, he surreptitiously gives her a copy of The Origin of Species and Callie begins her exploration of the scientific method and evolution, eventually happening upon the possible discovery of a new plant species. Callie's mother, believing that a diet of Darwin, Dickens, and her grandfather's influence will make Callie dissatisfied with life, sets her on a path of cooking lessons, handiwork improvement, and an eventual debut into society."—School Library Journal, May 1, 2009

*Starred Review* "Growing up with six brothers in rural Texas in 1899, 12-year-old Callie realizes that her aversion to needlework and cooking disappoints her mother. Still, she prefers to spend her time exploring the river, observing animals, and keeping notes on what she sees. Callie’s growing interest in nature creates a bond with her previously distant grandfather, an amateur naturalist of some distinction. After they discover an unknown species of vetch, he attempts to have it officially recognized. This process creates a dramatic focus for the novel, though really the main story here is Callie’s gradual self-discovery as revealed in her vivid first-person narrative. By the end, she is equally aware of her growing desire to become a scientist and of societal expectations that make her dream seem nearly impossible. Interwoven with the scientific theme are threads of daily life in a large family—the bonds with siblings, the conversations overheard, the unspoken understandings and misunderstandings—all told with wry humor and a sharp eye for details that bring the characters and the setting to life. The eye-catching jacket art, which silhouettes Callie and images from nature against a yellow background, is true to the period and the story. Many readers will hope for a sequel to this engaging, satisfying first novel. Grades 4-7."  Booklist, May 1, 2009

"To her family's dismay, Callie is stubborn, independent and not interested in darning socks or perfecting her baking skills like a lady. 'I would live my life in a tower of books,' she thinks to herself. She spends most of her time with Harry, 'the one brother who could deny me nothing,' slowly befriending her Granddaddy, a mysterious naturalist who studies everything from pecan distillation to microscopic river bugs. Together they dream up experiments and seek answers to backyard phenomena, discovering something new about the invisible world each day. Callie follows her passion for knowledge, coming to realize her family 'had their own lives. And now I have mine.' Callie's transformation into an adult and her unexpected bravery make for an exciting and enjoyable read."—Publisher’s Weekly, May 4, 2009

"The culture and social life of the early twentieth century is reflected in the lives of Calpurnia and her family and community. What is central always to this novel, though, is the close relationship shared by Calpurnia and her grandfather, who are brought together through their interest in observing nature. Grandfather encourages Calpurnia not only to be scientific in her approach to studies but also underscores the importance of learning the other skills she deems useless, such as learning how to cook. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from Darwin's Origin of Species, offering a quote that mirrors what is also occurring in Calpurnia's life."—Voice of  Youth Advocates, April 1, 2009

  • Read Little House on the Prairie and compare/contrast life of a girl in early America.  Perhaps read Carol Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, as well.
  • Tie it to a science lesson about Darwin, evolution, the scientific method or naturalists.
  • Pair with Deborah Heligman’s Charles and Emma:  The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (idea given by VOYA).
  • Have students use their own notebooks to go make observations outdoors, come back and share their findings.


I loved this book—adored this book—until the very end.  I found the ending far too hazy and indecisive.  I understand that last scene meant she was able to do something she thought she wouldn’t get to, but I really want to know:  does she end up having a “coming out” year?  Does she go to the university or settle down as someone’s wife?  Does she love that person?  Does she ever find peace between who she is and what society expects of her?  I don’t like feeling lingering questions at the end of a novel, but I must say that the writing in this novel is as beautiful as Harper Lee’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and as moving.  I can’t think of a higher compliment.  I also love the cover, so stark and ornate at the same time.  It looks like a popular artform of the time, using Scherenschnitte, which is the German craft of cutting paper into decorations.  The creatures cut out around the edges are nearly invisible until you look closely, which is what she learns to do in the story.

Works Referenced

Brink, Carol Rryie.  1970.  Caddie Woodlawn.  New York, NY:  Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Heiligman, Deborah.  2009.  Charles and Emma:  The Darwins’ Leap of Faith.  New York, NY:  Henry Holt & Company.

Kelly, Jacqueline.  2009.  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, audio version.  Grand Haven, MI:  Brilliance Audio.  Read by Natalie Ross.

Lee, Harper.  1960, 1988.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York, NY:  Grand Central Publishing.   

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

Wilder, Laura Ingles.  1935, 1971. Little House on the Prairie. New York, NY:  HarperTrophy.

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