The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly is certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year. It really got me. It’s not a sad book, but there is something about this story and the central character that made me feel full of emotion when I turned the last page. It is a story to make you feel full, that’s for sure, as you’ll be spoiled by the language and the attention to detail in characterization. After reading reviews from some of my favourite bloggers (like this one, and this one), I bought a copy a few months back, but I’ve been saving it for my holiday to enjoy every page properly.
And there is so, so much to enjoy in this novel. It would be a crime to read it quickly.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is the story of eleven-year-old Calpurnia (Callie Vee), the only girl in a family of seven children. It’s 1899, and Callie is a thinker and a dreamer – qualities not exactly practical for a girl growing up at this time in a sleepy Texas town. She knows her own mind, and she likes to investigate things. After being given a notebook by her beloved older brother, Callie befriends her eccentric and forbidding grandfather and he teaches Callie how to become a naturalist. The two study the natural world around their home, and in the process, Callie builds a close relationship with her granddaddy and discovers her true passion for science.
I’ve read a few reviews in which the reviewers comment that they found the book slow in places, particularly at the beginning, and they also wondered about the intended audience of the book. I did not find it at all slow. In fact, I was surprised at how a book rather episodic in its structure held me completely captivated throughout. Each chapter is like a short story, zeroing in on a small moment in this one year in the Tate family, drawing out the events so perfectly that even the smallest thing turns out to be full of drama and meaning. As for audience, I’m in agreement that I don’t think it will be a book that will work for every child reader, but then, what book does? The extensive descriptions and sometimes elevated language might turn off some readers used to more plot-driven, action-packed narratives, but then these qualities will likely be exactly what makes the book appealing to others. I’ve seen the book labeled as Middle Grade, and Young Adult, and I think that it could work for readers in both groups.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that towards the end of the novel you will truly yearn for Calpurnia to be able to have the opportunity to pursue her dreams of scientific study and inquiry. Kelly conveys brilliantly how intensely her character feels the injustice of being limited in her future simply because she is female. I’ve read a lot of books set in this period about young women characters who wish for more than the typical future of marriage and motherhood, but they are not always as convincing in portraying the frustration and sense of hopelessness of the protagonist.
I sincerely hope that Calpurnia takes her place among the most memorable girl characters in children’s literature. She belongs there. And the ending. It is one of the most understated yet emotionally powerful endings I’ve read in a while. Just perfectly done.
Read Hip Writer Mama’s excellent recent Winter Blog Blast Tour interview with Jacqueline Kelly here.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is published by Henry Holt.