Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
By: Jacqueline Kelly
Published By: Henry Holt and Company
Publication Date: May 2009
Page Count: 344
Audience: Middle Grades - Historical Fiction
I'm always drawn to historical fiction that features females ahead of their time. Calpurnia Tate is certainly one of those females. Callie lives in Texas in 1899, a time where women are supposed to be wives and mothers, but Callie yearns for more. She wants to be a scientist. Her parents think that her obsession with nature is a tomboy trait that will go away with age, but Callie is desperate to prove that science is important and a girl can study it just as easily as a boy. She has an uphill battle with her parents - particularly her mother - as both want to mold their only daughter into a lovely and meek debutante.
Callie finds an unlikely ally in her grandfather. He supports her interests and pushes her to engage in more sophisticated scientific inquiry. The two spend hours looking for insects and animals in the Texas countryside. Callie's grandfather even allows her to read Darwin's Origin of Species. This can be a controversial science tome even today so this was certainly hugely controversial in 1899. I loved that the relationship between Callie and her grandfather defied all societal norms. They were kindred spirits in many ways and gender did not define their interactions.
In addition to the science, I loved Callie's relationships with her various brothers. The interactions between the siblings left me in stitches. The family dynamics made this novel shine for me.
I also loved learning more about Texas in 1899. The rules of southern society in this time period often made me roll my eyes. The only freedom women could experience is when they found employment as an operator or teacher. The only other path available for many was marriage. I am happy to live in a time period that has options. I also would not enjoy living in a time period where I was not allowed to study topics that piqued my curiosity because of my gender.
My biggest complaint was the pacing. There were some moments that I became too bogged down by the science. I wanted more of the history and family moments.
One Last Gripe: I was frustrated about Callie's attitude towards others who didn't agree with her views.
Favorite Thing About This Book: Kelly's writing is beautiful.
First Sentence: By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.
Favorite Character: Callie
Least Favorite Character: Minerva Goodacre
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger.
As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.
Debut author Jacqueline Kelly deftly brings Callie and her family to life, capturing a year of growing up with unique sensitivity and a wry wit.