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Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

2009 August 12

It’s been awhile since I’ve stumbled upon a good non-fantasy young adult novel, but The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a rare find. The concept intrigued me – a young girl living at the end of the 19th century finds herself caught between the worlds of her mother’s expectations for her life (which involves a lot of knitting and cooking) and the passion for scientific discovery she discovers in the pages of Mr. Darwin’s books and her grandfather’s laboratory. The concept got me to pick up the book, and the first line had me hooked – “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.” By the end of the first page, I knew I was in for a treat. Author Jacqueline Kelly has captured that palpable descriptive style reminiscent of Harper Lee that transports the reader into another world. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate has that brilliant mix of character development, rich description and vocabulary, and historical allusion that is sure to land it a quick spot on middle school required reading lists, but which also guarantees a truly delightful read.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee, is the only girl of seven children growing up in rural Texas at the turn of the last century. Her brothers (all named after heroes of the Texas fight for Independence) run wild, her mother takes frequent doses of her “tonic” to cope with the chaos, and her grandfather remains aloof sequestered away in his laboratory or library. And while her mother is trying to train her into a proper lady, Callie Vee would rather spend her days observing insects, collecting strange plants, and making scientific observations in her notebook. She follows her grandfather on his trips to collect specimens by the river and helps him with his experiments. She is fascinated by the natural world, incessantly wondering why it works the way it does. What she is far less interested in are the tasks like knitting socks, making dough, practicing piano, and going to school to learn decorum and handiwork. Her deepest dream that she is too afraid to even voice is to attend the University someday to become a scientist. But since the only working women she has known are schoolteachers and the switchboard operator for her town’s one telephone, she doesn’t even know if women can be scientists. The beauty of her passion for the natural world and the absurdity of the restrictions placed on her because she is a girl set the tension of the novel, which ends on a hopeful yet ambiguous note.

I like the character of Callie Vee because she fits right into her time. She isn’t a committed feminist ahead of her time, nor did the author rewrite history in order to fit a strong female personality. No, Callie Vee is simply a young girl discovering her world and her passions and running up against the constraints of gender. There is no sermonizing on the evils of sexism, just the reflection from the perspective of an 11 year old about how certain aspects of society just don’t seem fair. This isn’t an anachronistic story that has her overcoming the injustices of the world, but neither is it a defeating story about her dreams being crushed. Callie Vee, like most spunky girls, pushes her boundaries where she can and lives to the fullest otherwise.

So from a historical and feminist perspective, I loved this book. This is the sort of book I want my daughter (and son) reading. My only quibble with the book is a personal one. As much as I loved the story of a girl as a naturalist – observing and wondering at the natural world, I was disappointed that the book perpetuated the myth that there can be no congress between science and faith. Callie Vee rejects the imaginative fairy worlds she used to play at as she strives to be strictly scientific. The same holds true with religion, with the scientist in the book having given up on the church in favor of studying the world. While I know the dichotomy is accurate historically, I just wish that it wasn’t always assumed that “objective” scientists must reject imagination, faith, and mystery. Such things aren’t necessarily incompatible, we are just constantly told that they are. So it disappointed me to hear that (mildly) reaffirmed in what is otherwise a fantastic book about self-discovery, awe of nature, and strong intelligent girls. But those good aspects far outweigh that subtle message, leaving us with what is simply a good book that is a much needed addition to the world of young adult fiction.

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 12, 2009

    Thanks, Julie. The book sounds a bit advanced for my budding 7-y.o. scientist, but the perfect sort of story for her in a few years. I can only hope she’d relate to Callie Vee as readily at age 11 as she would now!

    • Mary permalink
      May 1, 2011

      Maria,
      Read it to her. This book has a wonderful vocabulary and nothing so hard that your daughter couldn’t understand. I read tons of books to my boys that are far out of their reading capacity, for example “Grapes of Wrath” when they were 5 and 8… they loved it.
      Good luck!

  2. August 12, 2009

    I don’t even know if the supposed conflict between imagination/faith/mystery and science is all that accurate historically. Yes, there have been many individual scientists who have felt this way, but there have always been at least as many who have not. And likewise, even while some people of faith were rejecting Darwin’s theories, there have also been just as many who have embraced them and seen no conflict. It’s a myth that science and faith have to conflict; and it’s also a myth that they always have conflicted (whether they had to or not). For some people they did, for others they didn’t.

  3. Fr Daniel Hackney permalink
    August 15, 2009

    I bet alot of modern women wish to God that they could stay home and cook,clean, and raise their children outside of the enslavement which is minimum wage. And as our economy crumbles, there will be less and less successful “working women” (and men for that matter) to muse on such things as these.

    • sam browning permalink
      February 25, 2011

      You are a moron!!!!!!!!!!

  4. 10725 permalink
    November 5, 2010

    i am reading it now so far i am on chapter 3 and i have to do a boook report in it for school so wish me good luck

  5. May 21, 2011

    If you’re having a bard time finding good books for teens, check out my blog. I only review the best and cleanest of what I read.

  6. June 24, 2011

    I loved the book! As a teacher, I envision using it to teach the scientific method and inquiry based projects. The development of Calpurnia’s love for science and discovery as well as her relationship with her grandfather are of greater significance than any religious conflict regarding evolution.

  7. Shouba permalink
    August 17, 2011

    This book is stupid

  8. janmcd permalink
    November 2, 2011

    Thank you for your review. I found it very helpful. In our attempt to find books that interest my middle schooler, we came across this one. As I like to know what my children are reading, I am also reading this book. So far (I’m on chapter 6), a beautifully written book with many topics of discussion for my middle schooler and me.

  9. Lindsey permalink
    December 17, 2011

    I just finished reading this book! i thought it was okay, the beginning of the book to me a while to get into. I enjoyed reading the ending of the book more though. Now i have to write a book review on it and this helped me think of better ways to rephrase some of my dull words. so thank you :-)

  10. D.E permalink
    December 17, 2011

    Anyone know where to find chapter summaries

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