Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (NY: Henry Holt, 2009).

Don't let the dated looking cover art put you off this novel--it boasts extremely timely themes and a thoroughly engaging character in the eponymous Calpurnia Tate. Set in turn-of-the-century Texas, the novel stunningly captures the gritty, soporific heat that Calpurnia blithely ignores to tramp along side her grandfather to engage in scientific exploration. Learning about the natural world attracts her so much that she overcomes her fear of her grandfather to become his companion, and their relationship becomes just one of the "evolutions" in this novel. She is thrilled when he hands her his own copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species when the local library doesn't have it. Calpurnia records her observations and discoveries in a special notebook given to her by the eldest of her six brothers. At nearly twelve, Calpurnia is also starting to deal with the constraints of being a girl at this time period--why should she learn to cook and sew, for instance, when she could be out discovering how the world works with Grandaddy? Her failures in the domestic arts provide much of the humor in this novel, as well as her daily dealings with her brothers and mother.

Kelly vividly evokes Calpurnia's frustrations but without smothering all hope that Calpurnia can veer from the expected course of her life. I can imagine Calpurnia riding the progressive currents of her time into the university career she so desperately wishes for herself. Contemporary readers will come away with a renewed sense of possibility for their own futures--in science and all areas.

This is a wonderful novel--great for girls and boys, grades 5& up.

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