Each chapter in this completely delightful book begins with a quote from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, setting the stage for the trials and tribulations that seem to frame 11 year old Calpurnia Virginia Tate’s life in 1899 Texas.
Callie Vee (“no one calls me Calpurnia except Mother, and then only when I’m in lots of trouble”) is the only daughter in a well-to-do family of six brothers, three younger, and three older. Her family life is treated with humour and great detail, and I was totally swept into the bickering of brothers and sisters, the love they have for each other in spite of how vigorously they deny it, and the wonder and terror we all feel when our mothers call us by our full names. In THAT voice. Callie’s father may be the biggest landowner in the county, and the owner of the cotton gin, but he defers to mother in all matters dealing with the children and house. They have a formal yet tender relationship, as seen through Callie’s young eyes.
Calpurnia develops a wonderful relationship with her grandfather, an avid naturalist, keeper of the forbidden Darwin tome, and heretofore a mysterious, gruff and somewhat scary fixture in the Tate household. After she finally gets the nerve to approach him with scientific questions, he not only presents her with his copy of the book, they also become partners in crime, whiling away the hot summer hours collecting flora and fauna samples at the river, looking for new species, and trying to distil pecan liquor in the shed. He becomes her sounding board and her lifeline as she tries to mount a quiet revolution against her fate.
Connections are the centre of the story; Callie’s with the servants, with her brothers, best friend, and specifically with her grandfather. I loved seeing how the love and respect between the two of them grew, and the importance they both placed on each other and their relationship.
Kelly has written a believable ahead-of-her-time character, without making Calpurnia a 21st century girl caught in the wrong time. Callie Vee is, without a doubt, a Texas girl in 1899, but one who is beginning to hope there is more in her life ahead than a husband and babies and knitting and cooking and sewing. She wants to study science and follow in the footsteps of adventurous women that looked for new pathways. Small town life is the backdrop for the six very important months in Callie’s life in which she tries to find a way to change her future.
Written for the young girl, this story seems to be historically accurate in its use of language and imagery (I am no expert in the history of Texas). There is no swearing (although best friend, Lula, is scandalized when Callie utters “drat!” in a moment of frustration…) or violence. It very much has a Little House on the Prairie feel to it.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is published by Square Fish Books.