“That summer, I was eleven years old and the only girl of seven children. Can you imagine a worse situation?”
It is the summer of 1899, and Calpurnia Tate, the unwitting heroine of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, is feeling restless despite the sleepy Texas heat. Her family’s plantation is thriving and her best friend Lula is becoming quite the accomplished young lady (not to mention the object of nearly every Tate brothers’ affection). Calpurnia, however, has no intention of learning to knit socks.
During the long, hot summer days, Calpurnia slips away to sit on the bank of the San Marcos River. In the peace and quiet, she begins to notice the humming world of the animals and plants that surround her. When she makes a natural discovery that piques her curiosity, she screws up her courage and approaches the patriarch of the Tate family: her “notoriously cantankerous” grandfather. Although she knows Granddaddy only as a mysterious, grizzled old man, she soon discovers that he is an avid naturalist. Together they explore nature and form an unlikely bond, as Calpurnia begins to wade her way through Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
I had high hopes for The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and I was not disappointed: Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel has been given a Kirkus starred review, won the 2010 Newbery Honor, and has appeared in School Library Journal’s Top 100 Children’s Novels and reviews. It has been recommended to me by a handful of school librarians, and would make an excellent read for a book club or classroom discussion (here is a discussion guide from the publisher to get you started). On its own, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate was a wonderful and memorable read: Calpurnia’s sharp–and realistically child-like–observations are bittersweet and funny; she made me think about what it meant to be a child at the turn of the 20th Century, and what it means now.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a wonderfully told story about growing up; although it is not fast-paced, there was never a dull moment. I am not always a fan of historical fiction, but I immediately fell for Jacqueline Kelly’s style and well-developed characters. Calpurnia’s droll humour and inquisitive eleven-year-old mind make her an endearing and sympathetic heroine. I found myself cheering Calpurnia on, and I teared up with her as she discovers that her ambition may not be appreciated by the rest of her family. I loved the main characters in the book, who often found themselves in slightly hilarious and socially awkward situations. The tension that Jacqueline Kelly creates at the cusp of childhood and adolescence is something that everyone, growing or grown, can relate to.
This book is definitely worth the read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!