Monday, June 30, 2014

409 (2014 #37). The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly,
read by Natalie Ross

It's 1899, and almost-12-year-old Calpurnia Virginia ("Callie Vee") Tate is growing up as the middle of seven children (and only daughter) of a wealthy cotton and pecan farmer and gin owner in Fentress, Texas.  She's a bit of a tomboy, and would rather accompany her retired grandfather on his expeditions to study plants and wildlife than learn to play the piano, cook, or sew, all expected of a girl of that age and time.  She even helps her grandfather in his experiments to make an alcoholic beverage with pecans, and in identifying what they hope is a new species of vetch, a common plant in Texas.

The book starts in the summer of 1899 and ends as 1900 begins.  The reader experiences everyday life with Callie's large and active family, as well as special occasions such as holidays, the county fair and a trip into town for a photograph.  These feel authentic to the time period.

This book was a Newbery Honor Book in 2010 (for the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,") and I can see why.  I loved it!  The developing relationship with her previously-remote grandfather is wonderful.  I found it amusing that five of Callie's six brothers are named for early Texas heroes--Sam Houston, (Mirabeau) Lamar, (William B.) Travis, Sul Ross, and Jim Bowie--and she has interesting (and funny!) interactions with most of them, particularly her oldest brother Harry (named for a rich bachelor great uncle).  Even her exasperated mother and the overworked family cook, Viola, are rendered vividly.

I also liked the emphasis on the scientific method (particularly recording your observations), and the way debut author Jacqueline Kelly worked new inventions into the story - the telephone, the automobile, and even an early motorized fan (much appreciated in the Texas heat!).  I felt she did a fine job with the Texas setting.  Born in New Zealand, growing up in the rain forest of western Canada, moving to El Paso, Texas, in high school, and later living in Galveston, Austin, and Fentress, she seems to have a true appreciation for my home state, and got a lot of details right, adding to the story.  In a 2009 interview on Cynsations, Kelly said,

The book was inspired by my huge 140-year-old Victorian farm house in Fentress, a tiny community on the San Marcos River. I bought the house some years ago and promptly ran out of money to fix it up. The house is grand but falling down around my ears. One summer, I was lying on the daybed in the living room under the ancient air conditioner, which was barely cooling the room, and I thought to myself, how did people stand it in the heat a hundred years ago, especially the women, who had to wear corsets and all those layers of clothing? And with that thought, Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer the question for me.
Sadly, "the house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground" in 2010, according to Kelly in a later interview, which could have something to do with why a planned sequel hasn't materialized.

The language in this book is beautiful.  The descriptions of the natural world are detailed and evocative.  In the Cynsations interview, Kelly (who has both medical--which may explain those descriptions--and law degrees) said,

A friend of mine, a very successful trial attorney, once said, "Every lawyer I know has got a novel hidden away in his laptop somewhere." I think it's because we all love language, and using it to convey precise ideas. Or maybe it's because so many lawyers were English majors who couldn't then figure out what to do with their degrees.

Kelly begins each chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, which Calpurnia's grandfather gives to her to read early in the story (hence the title of the book). The cover art is a lovely and intricate silhouette cut by Beth White.  The narrator of the audiobook is Natalie Ross, a native Texan, who makes a perfect adult Calpurnia looking back at that half-year and telling her own story.  This will definitely be a book I'll re-read.  I think it will also appeal to avid young female readers ages 11 and up.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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