Calpurnia Virginia Tate is nearly twelve and Fentress, Texas in 1899 isn’t big enough to hold all her questions. Callie Vee is right in the middle of seven children, the only girl, and her rambunctious household gives her some cover to pursue her real interests. No tatting lace and coming out parties in her imagined future. But what is it she really wants to do?
The day Calpurnia discovers that she is a naturalist she also finds her best ally in the grandfather who has retired to putter around his laboratory in an old shed out back. Walter Tate, who amassed a tidy sum innovating cotton gin systems and working the family acreage, lends Callie an original copy of The Origin of the Species, given to him by his longtime correspondent Charles Darwin. And they are off, spending long hours exploring the scrub and the river, examining plants and insects, scribbling field notes. Grandaddy is an accomplished amateur naturalist and he enlists Calpurnia to collect specimens, take notes and engage in scientific inquiry through the long, fiercely hot Texas summer and fall.
Grandaddy was an awe-inspiring figure Callie avoided for most of her life but he turns out to be a respectful mentor and partner-in-crime. She is overcome by a swig of pecan moonshine he is attempting to distill, raises a huge hairy caterpillar they find on a walk but gets more than she bargained for when it hatches, and helps him to discover an odd specimen of vetch that may be botanically significant. When Grandaddy predicts that men will someday travel to the moon, the good folk of Fentress raise their eyebrows but Calpurnia thinks events will prove him right—in about a thousand years.
Calpurnia tells the tale in a wonderful, distinctive voice at once droll, wise beyond her years and full of childlike wonder. She is such a terrific character and this is such a delightful glimpse of history and the dilemmas of a bright young girl at the turn of the last century that it is no surprise the book was a Newbery Honor pick for 2010. There are pet turkeys slated for Thanksgiving dinner and various brothers who keep developing inconvenient crushes on unsuitable young ladies. A piano recital is disastrous enough to win a permanent reprieve from future musical entertainments. Cooking lessons are sticky, gluey and unsuccessful and knitting socks is pure torture.
But the volvox in a drop of pond water under a microscope is a marvel, a telephone line connects Fentress to Austin and the rest of the world one memorable day, and the fair introduces the astonishments of a horseless carriage and a new fizzy drink, Coca Cola. Calpurnia skips in and out of trouble while she worries about how a girl could ever go to the university to become a scientist and rages at the unfairness of corsets and her Christmas book, The Science of Housewifery. You root for her all the way through that long season of discovery and suspect she will find her own clever way to realize her dreams.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a middle grade book with chapters introduced by epigraphs from Darwin. I would give it to a kid in a heartbeat—after I finished reading it myself. Kelly’s book is a great example of why I love really fine children’s stories, often even better than the jaded and mannered tales aimed at adults.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate Jacqueline Kelly | Henry Holt and Company 2009