Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Henry Holt
& Co
. 2009. Listened to Brilliance Audio version (2009), copy supplied by Brilliance Audio. Narrated by Natalie Ross. Middle Grade Fiction.

The Plot: It's 1899, and Calpurnia Virginia Tate is twelve. Well, actually eleven. But she's the type who thinks twelve is an acceptable answer. It's a hot summer in Texas. Calpurnia, sometimes Callie Vee, is the middle child, with three older brothers and three younger, most named for Texas heroes. Her family is well off; as the only daughter, her mother has plans for her. Plans that include cookery and knitting and housewife skills and possibly being a debutante. It's not what Callie wants. But what does Callie want?

A chance conversation with her imposing Grandfather Tate about grasshoppers leads her science. And studying nature. And to realizing that there is more to life than her corner of Texas. But is it realistic for a girl to dream of being more than what her family wants her to be?

The Good: A look at six months in the life of one girl, when she begins to leave childhood behind and become her own person. Told with a lot of humor and love, with details for the grown up reader to love, such as the warm, loving, physical relationship between Callie's oh so formal and proper parents.

How many times do kids in books (boys or girls) like, I mean really, really like, science? Science and nature and observation are all key parts of the story; scientists are mentioned, and a quote from Darwin starts each chapter.

Callie wonders why suddenly there are both green and yellow grasshoppers and asks her grandfather. Years before, Grandfather passed the running of the family business (cotton and pecans) to his son, Callie's father, and Grandfather now spends his days indulging in a love of and passion for science. He tells Callie to figure it out herself, and so starts what becomes a beautiful grandparent/grandchild relationship. Grandfather, who cannot quite keep track of all the children in his son's large family, slowly rejoins the family to become Callie's "Granddaddy" while Callie blooms as she turns her love of being outdoors and books and animals into something more than a passing fancy.

The supporting characters are fully drawn. Mother, who uses an alcohol-ladden ladies tonic to ease her headaches, wants for Callie all that Mother either had or wanted as a child. Which means cooking, and sewing, and embroidery, and perhaps being a debutante. Her mother fails to see that Callie has her own dreams; and Callie, just 11 (almost 12), doesn't know how to please her mother and follow her own desires. Cooking and "housewifery" isn't shown to be wrong; it's just shown to not be what Callie likes doing. Her friend Lula likes it; as does her mother. But it's not for Callie.

Likewise, Granddaddy, who spent his life doing what he had to do -- building a business and life for his family -- only now does what he wants. Granddaddy doesn't appear to give his full support to Callie. He points out that anyone should learn the basics of cooking and sewing, adding that when he was in the war the men cooked and sewed and take care of themselves. Part of me wonders if Granddaddy, having waited until he no longer had family responsibilities to become a self-educated scientist, just doesn't see scientist as a career, period, let alone a career for his granddaughter.

The Civil War, slavery, and race relations are hinted it. Adults talk of the hard times after the war, which is why Mother didn't "come out" into society. But somethings aren't explained; there are old slave quarters, but did the Tates have slaves? What happened? Viola is the family cook -- but what is her history? Kelly gives some details, hints of things, but never over explains or over describes. In other words, we are always told and shown things as a child would tell us, a child who sometimes knows (and sometimes doesn't) the importance of what she shares.

Callie is privileged. First, by her color. She tells of an "octoroon" who "passed" as white, only to be killed by her husband when found out. When it's time to pick cotton, "colored" children work along with the adults. While Kelly and Callie never say it, the adult reader sees this and thinks, Callie can pursue her grasshoppers and moths and read her books because she's the white child of a well-off landowner, even if her mother does want her to bake an apple pie.

Her second privilege comes from money. Off-hand, as the story develops, we learn that they are one of the most well-off families in town. Lula's mother would be happy if her daughter (only eleven, like Callie) landed one of those Tate boys. There are music lessons, a gramophone, new clothes, and when Callie rebels against cooking, her mother asks her, "who will cook for you when you are grown?" Callie, with the certainty of a child, answers "Viola," the family cook, with utter sincerity. She expects to always have those servants. If we don't learn more about Viola's family or personal life, it's because Callie doesn't know it and doesn't even think to wonder.

Callie never realizes her privilege; it's for the reader, and it's for the reader to contrast those two areas of privilege (color and wealth) with the area where she is not privileged: her sex. She is locked into only one possible future, and it's not a future of scientific study. Callie has food, clothes, school, lessons, but does she have a choice about her future?

What will Callie's future be? Kelly leaves this open; I, for one, think Callie will pursue her studies, stubbornly, with a bit of pigheadedness. To me, the end shows that Callie's dreams are achievable even if she's the only one who believes it.

One more thing: I was so, so afraid that there was going to be a Big Meaningful Death. I am happy to report -- not even a dead dog.

Also? The author's website says that she is a lawyer. You all know I have a soft spot for fellow lawyers.

Natalie Ross narrates. Granddaddy sounded like an old man; Callie like a child, sometimes old for her years, sometimes petulant, always eleven almost twelve.

For having such fully realized characters; and for Kelly not telling us everything about Callie and her world and family, and rather telling us just enough; this is one of my favorite books of 2009.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Jenn said...

i was quite worried that there was going to be a big meaningful death as well, and dreaded it the entire book. rarely have i been so happily proved wrong.
great review, incidentally. this was one of my favorites of the year as well.

Vasilly said...

This is definitely one of my favorite reads of this year. I really thought that Grandpa was going to die and thankful he didn't. I just checked this out from the library so I can re-read it.

Reading Countess said...

I read it during the Christmas break (I teach fifth grade and I am holding a girl's book club in Janurary). I thought the book started a bit slowly, but then it picked up quite nicely. I was worried in the beginning about the references to Darwin's theory of evolution, since I teach in a VERY conservative area. I know, I know. Before anyone claims ignorance on my part, don't. I just did not want the parents of my girls to disallow them to read/join in the book club discussion due to a lack of knowledge. In any case, I was so very pleased with the way in which Darwin was woven into the book and think it opened a door for discussion that might not be in certain households. I am skyping with the author during my book club, and plan on asking her about it. In addition to her being a lawyer, she is also a dumb bunny. I enjoyed your review of the book! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hah hah, if not a Big Meaningful Death, I kept expecting SOME Big Bad thing to happen, and nothing did! It's amazing how riveting a book in which Nothing Much Happens can be. Come to think of it, maybe it's a better book for NOT having Huge Somethings happening in it, because if we were all expecting it, it's probably cliched!

(My word verification is actually the last name of a friend of mine from college. Not likely that happens very often).

Liz B said...

Jenn & rockinlibrarian, I wondered if saying no Big Meaningful Death was a spoiler, but then realized that it's pretty sad if we expect good book to have a BMD to make it, well, serious. Would saying there are no zombies be a spoiler? Nope. It added an unnecessary level of fear to my reading that wasn't necessary. And I'm glad to hear that others feared the BMD.

Vasily, my candidates for death were Grandpa, Mother (forcing Calpurnia into doing what she hated for the good of the family), and youngest brother Jim Bowie (so Call would be punished for not playing with him). So glad none of it happened!

RC, Knowing your audience is important & I love how instead of just rejecting the book you're thinking of how to make it work. I agree that while Darwin is a red-letter word for some, Kelly uses him in a way that isn't extreme (ie 'there is no God', etc etc). I think CHARLES & EMMA may be too old for the group, but it's a quick read and it may be helpful to you to share with the group (and parents!) that Darwin's wife was religious & how they debated & still respected each other.