Jaqueline Kelly should feel very accomplished in this life. Besides being a doctor and a lawyer, her debut novel won the Newbery Honor Medal in 2010, and I suspect The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate would have won the gold had the equally amazing and wonderful book When You Reach Me by Rebbeca Stead not come out in the same year. Check out this interesting article that features fourteen questionable Newbery choices over the years. Either way, I am so glad I did not have to choose a gold medal winner between the two. That said, while I loved every page, passage and sentence of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, as I read I frequently wondered what type of young reader would pick up this unique work of historical fiction?
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate begins in the summer of 1899 in Fentress, Texas on the Tate pecan plantation. Eleven year old Calpurnia is a middle child with three older and three younger brothers. As one might expect, growing up on a plantation with nothing but brothers, she is not squeamish or shy when it comes to playing out doors. Also, Calpurnia is a watcher, an observer of the world around her. Calpurnia's curiosity about the natural world, her desire to learn how and why it works and her strong, engaging narrative voice make this book and character one that will have a long shelf life and can easily take a place next to Lucy Maude Montgomery's Anne Shirley. The significant aspect of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, the one that makes me wonder if young readers will embrace this book the way many adults (myself included) have, indeed, if they will embrace Calpurnia the way generations have Anne, is the distinct lack of action, suspense, drama and climax that can be found in the pages of Anne of Green Gables. While much of the drama of Anne of Green Gables can be attributed to Anne's dramatic nature alone, there are plot developments that move the book along and a sad loss at the end that changes the course of Anne's future. In contrast, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate feels more like a collection of loosely linked vignettes that illuminate a young girl's turning toward the person she will be as an adult. While there is a mentor who guides her towards the discovery of her own passion in the form of her Granddaddy, her father's father Captain Tate, who built the plantation up from the ground, he never intervenes on her behalf during the six months that the story takes place. However, I think that the quiet tone of Kelly's book, the lack of a grand declaration of independence and determination on Calpurnia's part, only adds to the authentic feel of the writing and a more honest depiction of real life for a girl during this time period. Kelly skillfully balances the social standards and expectations for a girl of this era and class with the burgeoning interest in the possibilities that lay before her as the century and the life of all Americans perches on the verge of incredible changes and progress.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate begins with a very hot summer when all the boys and men cut their hair close and shaved off facial hair to beat the heat. When Calpurnia asks her mother to be allowed the same relief from hair that hangs in a "dense swelter" all the way down her back, Mrs Tate says she will not have her daughter "running around like a shorn savage." Taking matters into her own hands, Calpurnia resolves to cut off an inch every day so that her mother will not notice her hair getting shorter, although she heads to the breakfast table every morning walking in fear. From the start, Calpurnia is, in her own creative way and completely unknowingly, subverting the dominant standards of the time. When the whole house, including all the hired hands, stop work and retire at the peak of the day's heat, Calpurnia sees this unsupervised time as an opportunity to head to the riverbank and float in the shallows. Calpurnia's favorite brother Harry, the oldest, is also her confidant and she shares her observations with him. When he gives her a red leather pocket-sized notebook he suggests she write her observations in it since she is clearly a "naturalist in the making," Calpurnia is thrilled, even though she's not sure what a naturalist is. When she notices two distinctly different kinds of grasshoppers appear that blistering summer and no one in her family can explain their presence to her, she works up her courage and visits her grandfather in his laboratory. Granddaddy, aside from trying to distill whisky from pecans, is a true naturalist with a (locked to the family) library filled with important books and specimens. Granddaddy tells her he is sure she can figure it out on her own and tells her to come back when she does. Noting her observations, Calpurnia briefly fantasizes that she has discovered a new species and become famous and decides she needs to check out The Origin of the Species from the town library, despite the fact that she knows it is a controversial book. She is met with shock and scorn at the library and promptly turned away. Furious and humiliated, Calpurnia returns home and discovers the secret of the grasshoppers on her own. She goes to tell her grandfather her findings, as well as the story of her visit to the library, and he takes her to his library and unlocks a cabinet from which he removes his own copy of The Origin of the Species and loans it to her.
From that moment on, the two spend many hours together, collecting specimens, discussing nature and science and, hopefully, finding a new species of the vetch plant. The trip into town to have the plant photographed before it is sent to the Smithsonian Institution is one of my favorite chapters, each of which start with a quote from The Origin of the Species. The tension in the story comes when school resumes and Mrs Tate decides that it is time for Calpurnia to learn the science of housekeeping. Forced to knit socks for her brothers as Christmas gifts, Calpurnia spends less and less time with grandfather as she struggles with tasks that she is not talented or interested in. She finds herself dividing her time between unpleasant (to her) domestic tasks and the much more engaging pursuit of her own scientific interests. Aware of her mother's intention and a growing understanding of what awaits her in the future as she watches seventeen year old Harry court a sweetheart, Calpurnia's struggles with her situation not wanting to go against her mother's wishes but knowing that she is not like other girls. As much as I hoped and hoped for it, Granddaddy does not intervene on her behalf. Forced to make apple pies for the family dinner, a disastrous episode in and of itself, Mrs Tate proudly tells the family that the pies were made by Calpurnia. When her younger brother Jim Bowie asks if he can learn to make pies, Mother responds, "No, J.B., boys don't make pies . . . They have wives who make pies for them." The unfairness of her situation dawning on her, Calpurnia wonders, "was there any way I could have a wife, too?" In one especially moving chapter near the end of the book titled "The Reproductive Imperative," Calpurnia falteringly, nervously asks her grandfather if girls can be scientists too, betraying the isolation of her existence. Grandfather asks her, "Did we not talk about Mrs Curie's element? Mrs Maxwell's screech owl? Miss Anning's pterodactyl? Her ichthyosaur? . . . Mrs Kovalevsky's equations? Miss Bird's travels to the Sandwich Islands?" When Calpurnia answers, "No," grandfather begs her to "Please forgive my ignorance," and proceeds to share more of his knowledge with her. Calpurnia says she soaks up "what he told me like a living sponge. It was galvanizing information." Calpurnia finishes her talk with Granddaddy and, from the porch, watches the last, lone firefly of the season, flashing his "signal in the dark, alone, to nothingness." She realizes that she is not alone, that there are others of her kind out there.
The book ends on the morning of January 1, 1900 and without any events of revelations bigger than the confirmation of a new species of vetch a shift in Calpurnia's perspective and outlook for the future. Waking and feeling that something is desperately wrong, Calpurnia looks out her bedroom window at a blanket of snow covering the ground as far as she can see. She thinks, "The world hadn't ended. It had just begun." Calpurnia heads outside, tentatively traipsing through the snow, observing, as always, the world around her, from the bird tracks in the snow to the young coyote creeping around the edge of the lawn.