The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly
2009 by Henry Holt and Co.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is proof that you can break all the rules of a genera, as long as you do it beautifully. When reading Jacqueline Kelly's enthralling debut novel, the joy does not come from watching a hero struggle through ever more complicated challenges until overcoming a key conflict with man/the environment/self, but rather from getting to know a character well and exploring the world she inhabits at her side. And what a fascinating world it is! The year is 1899 when a summer drought leads eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate to a discovery about the large yellow grasshoppers that populate the lawn of her great home in a rural Texas town. It is a discovery that leads to many more- most important among them a love of science, a need to explore the world, and a kinship with the naturalist in the back shed - her grandfather. Together they explore the wilderness around the Tate home; watch the first telephone, car, and Coca Cola come to their small town; and develop a deep friendship - one that will fundamentally change Calpurnia's expectations of her place in the world.
Kelly's well-drawn characters are simultaneously distinctive personalities and deeply rooted in their times. While the reader will feel like Calpurnia is unique and timeless in her curiosity and determination, a modern reader will not share all of her assumptions. When Calpurnia is blind to her privilege or to the hard realities that face people she loves, no omniscient narrator steps in to moralize or to provide insight that young Callie lacks. This gives the novel great authenticity, and also makes it an ideal novel for parents to read along with their children. Parents will not be bored by the well-crafted story, for Kelly expects some sophistication from readers young and old, and may find the novel leads to discussions about race, some of the dark moments in our nation's history, and how to love people who sometimes let us down.
At its heart, though, this is a optimistic book that celebrates curiosity, science, exploration, and friendship. Calpurnia's conversations with her grandfather will awaken your desire to learn more, and the quotations from Darwin's writings that begin each chapter will lead many readers to pick up The Origin of the Species as well.
Few authors can research a time that is not their own and then bring it back to life so vividly as Jacqueline Kelly does here. This is a wonderful book!