Review: THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE

I recently finished reading the debut novel by Texas author Jacqueline Kelly, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Sadly, I missed meeting Ms. Kelly at her book signing this week at Book People. I hope for another opportunity in the near future.

Before I continue, I must admit that it took me a while to get into this story. The early chapters read like a lovely drive on a hot summer day, but they don’t present any action. However, it was immediately obvious that this is a beautifully written book. Truly! The language is lovely and visual and often poetic. That alone was reason enough for me to continue reading and will be an impetus for me to recommend this book to friends. The author does a fantastic job of setting the scene with enough Texas history and turn-of-the century customs to transport the reader. Likewise, Callie’s voice is endearing.

I must say that the writing style, matched with Callie’s character, reminded me of both Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little Women’s Jo March. This is a character driven story with more of an emotional arc, rather than inciting incidents and drama. Readers should simply surrender to the vivid language and allow themselves into this charming slice of life. It is a worthy read.

Would I recommend this book? Yes!

Were there any disappointments in the story? Yes. But only a few and based solely on my personal tastes. See my comments at the end of the summary for specific criticisms.

Overall, Jacqueline Kelly should be proud of.

Summary:

A historical fiction set in Fentress, Texas in 1899, the first person story is told by “practically-twelve-year-old” Calpurnia Virginia Tate, known to her family as Callie Vee. The era was laden with drought, extreme heat, cotton, insects, cod-liver oil, gramaphones, petticoats, and corsets.

In the well-to-do Tate family, Callie Vee is “spliced midway between” three older brothers and three younger brothers. All but one of her brothers is named for a Texas hero. Callie’s grandfather, a naturalist, also lives at the family home and spends the majority of his time in the shed out back – his “observatory.” Granddaddy is an elusive, grouchy, and imposing presence to the Tate children as he speaks to them so rarely that they assume he doesn’t know their names.

As the only daughter, Callie is often overlooked in her noisy household except that her demanding mother insists that she learn the finer points of being a lady. Callie, however, wants nothing of genteel pursuits. She is much more interested in observing the natural world. She often trudges along river banks and through dense growth woods alone, returning to her home with a muddied pinafore.

When her oldest and favorite brother, Harry, surprises Callie with a “pocket-sized red leather notebook with SOUVENIR OF AUSTIN stamped on front,” she begins to jot down her observations. While her mother nags her about cooking, sewing, and piano lessons, Callie busies herself with notes and questions like “Why do dogs have eyebrows?” “Why don’t caterpillars have eyelids?”

After being admonished by the local librarian for requesting a copy of Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, Callie is shocked to be handed the book by her very own grandfather. Thus begins a surprising mentorship and bond between the two. Granddaddy takes Callie under his wing and encourages his only granddaughter’s scientific observations.

Mother, who is none too pleased about her daughter’s exploration, soon reels Callie in with inevitable lessons in sewing, darning, and tatting. “There was my whole life for you, socks stretched all the way to the infinite horizon, a yawning valley of knitting tedium. I felt sick.”

Callie finds herself trapped between two worlds; the first dictated by the expectations of her mother which Callie finds painfully monotonous. “I considered my mother’s life: the mending basket that never emptied, the sheets and collars and cuffs to be turned, the twenty loaves of bread to be punched down each and every week.”

The second world revolved around her deepest desires to be a naturalist at the gentle encouragement of her grandfather. Yet, even when she and Granddaddy make a profound discovery of a new plant species, Callie’s interests and hopes are never validated or encouraged by her parents. Even her grandfather doesn’t come to her defense.

Readers of this book will feel Callie’s frustration. While her father declares that “A boy needs piano like a snake needs a hoop skirt,” her mother counters by stressing the importance of a lady’s appearance in attracting a husband. Callie sees this as yet another question of inequity. “It’s funny that girls have to be pretty. It’s the boys that have to be pretty in Nature. Look at the cardinal. Look at the peacock. Why is it so different with us?”

As 1899 comes to a close, Callie’s hopes are further dashed by an uwelcomed Christmas gift from her parents; a book titled “The Science of Housewifery.” “…there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl. I’d overheard my life sentence delivered by my parents. There was no pardon or parole.”

Unfortunately, three chapters follow with no remedy to Callie’s heartbreak. On the final page of her notebook, Callie lists things she wants to see before she dies. The last item on the list is snow. The only possible hint that she might feel a sense of hope arrives on the last page of the book as she awakes on the very first day of the new century to a snowy scene. “It meant that anything was possible.”

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Reading is as subjective as writing, so the opinions expressed below are truly my own. I have purposely read with the eyes of a critic. The author has earned my deepest respect and has pulled me into the story enough to care about this wonderful character. I look forward to the sequel.

I was left with a few burning questions by the end of the story, but I’ll leave those for you, dear readers, to find.

Most importantly, after 338 pages of feeling Callie’s frustrations and investing in her deep yearning for acceptance and encouragement from her parents, she never receives it which ends this book on a less than hopeful note for Callie’s naturalist dreams. On one hand I believe the author was staying true to an era that largely kept women pigeon-holed in domestic pursuits. However, I was profoundly disappointed for Callie.

In the end, I don’t think Callie was allowed to fully “evolve” as the title promises. I would have hoped for some stronger indication that she eventually reaches the goal that she had strived for throughout the story. But, then again, these are my subjective opinions. I still love this book!

To learn more about Jacqueline Kelly, pop over to Janet Fox’s site to read an interesting interview http://kidswriterjfox.blogspot.com/2009/05/book-launch-evolution-of-calpurnia-tate.html

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