What if Anne Shirley had been given a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species instead of Tennyson’s poetry? She may have turned out more like Calpurnia Virginia Tate. In any case, if Anne and Callie Vee were ever to cross paths, they would be kindred spirits at first sight. However, while Anne recites Tennyson in a leaky canoe, Callie would be leaning over the side collecting water samples to examine under a microscope. Reading this novel felt like reading one of the Anne books. Both take place in the same time period and chronicle the lives of smart, thoughtful girls who dream of more than what society has to offer. This book has received so much acclaim that I almost chose not to review it. There is a little I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said, especially now that it has been named a Newbery Honor Book. However when a book as deserving of praise as Calpurnia is comes along, I just can’t help myself.
Calpurnia Tate is the only daughter in a family of seven living in Texas in 1899. Shortly before her 12th birthday, two things happen that change her life forever. First, she discovers the wonders of the natural world can be quantified and observed through something called the scientific process. Second, not only does her enigmatic grandfather know her name, but he needs her help discovering a new plant species.
Calpunia is a series of vignettes that take place over one year in Callie Vee’s life. Historical fiction for children tends to revolve around a major central event, but Jacqueline Kelly concerns herself with the small moments that make up Calpurnia’s day to day life; nature walks with her grandfather, learning (reluctantly) to make a pie, coming to terms with her beloved older brother’s questionable taste in women, chronicling the progress of caterpillar into moth, etc. In this way, we get a well rounded and authentic look at what life must have been like for a girl at this time. There is an undertone that suggests that Callie Vee’s scientific adventures are limited. As the only daughter in wealthy family it is expected that she will marry well, bear children, and run a household. This is a very real conflict, but at the end of the book, the reader feels that Callie Vee is not willing to roll over and play wife. You close the book feeling that she will succeed, knowing the women’s movement is right around the corner.
The relationship between Callie and her grandfather is unique and touchingly rendered. Callie is eager to prove her scientific prowess to her grandfather, who despite his age and station, does not look down upon Callie’s un-ladylike interest in science. Their relationship is built upon intellect, mutual respect, and a love of nature. I wish there were more grandfathers like this in children’s lit.
Jacqueline Kelly has a beautiful way with words. This book feels crafted, as if every word has been carefully chosen and polished and put in exactly the right place. Some of her turns of phrase were so fresh and inspired that I had to read them outloud to friends. My love of this book can be summed up in one sentence, a declaration made by Callie Vee herself while recovering from a fainting spell after a particularly exciting Fourth of July: “Bed, book, kitchen, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.”
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is published by Henry Holt.