Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The summer of Calpurnia Virginia Tate’s 11th birthday was a hot one. Everyone in her large family suffered from the heat in their Fentress, Texas home, but as Calpurnia was the only girl in a family of seven children, she also found freedom during afternoon naptime. That’s when she stole away from her room and down to the river, where she floated dreamily in the cool water.

During her outings away from the noise of having six brothers, Calpurnia discovers the natural world and starts making observations about it in her notebook. She also screws up her courage to talk to her grandfather, a shadowy figure who spends most of his time by himself caught up in reading or scientific experiments. But when her grandfather discovers that Calpurnia’s interest is genuine, he begins to include her in his experiments and observations. When they believe they discover a new species of vetch, they send it in to the Smithsonian for judgment.

Calpurnia’s activities with her grandfather brings up a conflict with Calpurnia’s mother, who believes that in the year 1899 girls must prepare to be women who run households, and nothing more. That means cooking, sewing, knitting and tatting, all occupations Calpurnia abhors. As she struggles to follow her heart’s desire, Calpurnia must discover if there are options for women in her time who have interests other than the domestic.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is historical fiction that reveals turn-of-the-last-century times in rural Texas. It was a time not very far removed from the Civil War, and Calpurnia’s grandfather as well as many others in town fought in the war. The Tate family farms cotton, and they are wealthy by the standards of most people in town. They have a housekeeper and a cook as well as regular farm hands, and while the children have daily chores, they don’t have the responsibility of making the farm productive.

This was also a time when Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was making an impact. It had been published for about 50 years, but his conclusions were still hotly debated, and as Calpurnia found out, some libraries refused to carry copies of the book. Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin that’s applicable to the action to come. As the book progresses, Calpurnia grows in her ability to understand the people and the world around her through observations made with a microscope and her regular vision.

This book is sure to delight mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged nine and up. Discussions can center on the differences between life for girls and women in 1899 versus life now, living up to the expectations of your parents versus following your heart, and scientific experiences. Girls may even find inspiration for a school science project, and groups can even tie in craft or sewing projects. I highly recommend it.

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