Friday, June 5, 2015

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - Jacqueline Kelly

Title: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Author: Jacqueline Kelly
Publisher: Square Fish (Henry Holt and Company), 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: June 4, 2015
Finished: June 5, 2015

From the back cover:

The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia's sleepy Texas town, and there aren't a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine, but instead, Callie's contemplating cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She's also spending a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. But just when Callie and her grandfather are about to make an amazing discovery, the reality of Callie's situation catches up with her. She's a girl at the turn of the century, expected to cook and clean and sew. What a waste of time! Will Callie ever find a way to take control of her own destiny?

I've seen this title for years and have finally picked it up. It turns out I missed out on a very charming book all these years.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate, called "Callie Vee", is about to turn twelve in 1899 in Fentress, a small town in Texas. With six brothers, she is the only girl in a fairly well-off family (they harvest cotton and pecans) with a cook and a housekeeper. The story opens in the beginning of the summer, with a brutal heat everyone is trying to seek shelter from. When Callie becomes interested in Darwin's book The Origin of Species and tries to ask her grandfather why they have two different types of grasshoppers on their land, he tells her to discover the answer herself. Prevented from borrowing Darwin's book from the closest library, Callie eventually figures it out on her own, which leads her science-minded grandfather to take an interest in her education. They spend much time together over the summer, even discovering what they believe is a new plant species. This is all done to the dismay of Calpurnia's mother, who would prefer her only daughter show some interest in the feminine arts that she must one day master. But as Callie becomes more and more fulfilled by her explorations and discoveries, she realizes her options are severely limited as a girl in her time period.

Callie is a great character and role model, she's curious and intelligent, and not afraid to follow her own desires instead of bending to the whims of others. Her grandfather, a captain in the Civil War, though surly at first and barely knows Callie exists, eventually becomes bonded to her through their shared interests to the point where he lets it slip that he considers her his only true grandchild. Callie's brothers are quite cute and have a couple of their own side stories, like Harry courting girls and several of the boys developing a crush on Callie's friend Lula.

I really liked the exploration into the idea of gender roles and women's rights in relation to this time period. Callie is relatively privileged in that she is the only girl from a well-off family so she is educated and able to get away with more being surrounded by boys, but even she is still reminded of the injustice of it all. She is expected to sew, cook, and clean, and do all those things well if she expects to get married and have a family, but Callie really wants to go to the university and study science, which was rare for women at the time. I love that her grandfather, seemingly someone who would balk at her interests, actively encourages them and proves himself quite the turn-of-the-century feminist. The novel doesn't really give any closure to this idea, it ends on a positive note but I would like to see what happens to Callie in the future. There is a sequel coming in July, so I will have to pick it up to continue the story.

Wonderfully written, with great characters and themes, a joy all around.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Callie is silhouetted in black with the branches and all the insects and animals around her, very appropriate given the content of the story.

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