Life for Calpurnia “Callie Vee” Tate is full of the daily intricacies you’d expect of life for an 11-year-old girl at the turn of the century: tending to animals on her family’s large Texas farm; monitoring her boisterous brothers’ behavior; learning the “feminine arts” of sewing, cooking and tatting under the watchful eye of her mother. But what appeals most to Callie — her most fervent and serious of desires? Science. The natural world. And, guided by her taciturn but loving grandfather, Callie discovers the natural world — and learns more about her place within it.
In Jacqueline Kelly’s magical coming-of-age novel The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate, the year is 1899 — and Callie is the only girl in a home of six sons. A little lost in the shuffle and wishing to escape from the mundane Texas summers, Callie is befriended by her own grandfather, a Civil War veteran and man of science who spends long days in a shed on the property, the former slave quarters that have been converted into his private laboratory. Callie is immediately drawn into the world of questions and experiments, and after she’s introduced to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”? A burning quest for knowledge is ignited.
Though she longs to while her days away with her grandfather examining plants and gathering samples of river water for inspection with her grandfather’s microscope, Mrs. Tate has little patience for Callie’s endeavors. And, likewise, Callie has little patience for learning to bake bread or knit socks for her brothers. But while dreams of attending university or taking over the farm responsibilities are excellent for Callie’s six brothers, including oldest Harry, the most Callie is told she can aspire to is becoming a schoolteacher or, most respectably, the wife of a wealthy man.
From the get-go, Callie’s narration — wise, humorous — had me intrigued and delighted as she ran away from her meddling brothers and found solace in her grandfather’s lab, and her notations and remarks in her scientific notebook are both hilarious and touching. I fell into the world of the dusty Texas plains at the turn of the century in no time flat, and I blinked like a newborn babe after I closed the final pages . . . it really felt strange to be back in the twenty-first century. Discovering, as the Tates did, newfangled machines like the telephone (picking up a receiver and talking to someone — across the country! Unbelievable!) and the automobile (it has the strength of four horses!) was actually touching.
But my favorite part of the novel? All of the family relationships. Despite the fact that the Tates are a seriously overflowing brood, Callie’s relationships with her brothers — especially Harry and the youngest, J.B. — were adorable. I could absolutely feel Callie’s reluctance to accept any young woman her oldest brother brought home, knowing that the arrival of Harry’s new wife would signal the end — or, at least, a huge change — to her tight-knit family.
More than anything, The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate is a glimpse at growing up — and, though Callie is young in 1900, not 2010, many of the concerns and questions she has about life and aging are universal, and still apply today. While the plot isn’t slow, it’s not action-packed, either; those looking for lots of bells and whistles in a story should probably look elsewhere. But for book lovers with a sweet spot for young adult fiction with an historical slant, there’s plenty to fall in love with in Calpurnia. An entertaining, tender story I’ll remember for quite a while.
4.5 out of 5!