Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate--Jacqueline Kelly
May 2009 by Henry Holt
338 pages--Goodreads

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones.With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger.

As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

Debut author Jacqueline Kelly deftly brings Callie and her family to life, capturing a year of growing up with unique sensitivity and a wry wit.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a highly enjoyable read with a gorgeous cover (I love silhouettes and scroll-work; this cover has both).  Made up of vignettes about one summer and fall, Callie's story is reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie with some Darwinian science thrown in.  I love Callie's adventures as a young naturalist, roaming the riverbed, collecting bugs and other scientific samples.  I especially love the relationship between her and her grandfather.

Callie's voice is distinct from the very start.  The writing in general is strong, but particularly in Callie's narrative voice.  She's a memorable character, and I love her spunk and determination.  Her observations about the world and people are hilarious, especially when three of her brothers have crushes on the same friend at the same time and Callie gets sick of being the middleman.  The brothers themselves are great.  I love Travis and his kittens and his unfortunate attachment to the family turkeys.

This novel presents a great coming of age story.  I completely understand Callie's desire to do something more than the life that was chosen for her, how she feels trapped by the societal and familial expectations that don't match up with her dreams.  This conflict is left mostly unresolved, and while I can understand why (time constraints--it would take years for Callie to work this out and this story only covers six months.) the ending feels just a bit incomplete.  I want some sort of reconciliation between Callie and her mother.

I wish this book had been around when I was younger.  Callie, Anne, Laura, and I would have been the best of friends despite differences in time, location, and fictionality.  There's just a bit of mild language (which I note only so I remember not to recommend the book to my ultra-ultra-sensitive students).  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a well-written and thoroughly enjoyable book.  

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