The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, was published in 2009 by Henry Holt.
The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine from town, but Callie might just have to resort to stealthily cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She also spends a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. It turns out that every drop of river water is teeming with life—all you have to do is look through a microscope! 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 learns just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.
For some reason, I wasn’t expecting The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate to be as good or as engaging as I found it to be. It was humorous, interesting, and surprisingly much lighter in tone and material than I expected it to be. I kept expecting something sad or dangerous to happen throughout (perhaps because of its Newbery Honor status) and—spoiler?—nothing did.
I was worried going in that the book was going to be very heavy on Darwinian evolution and I had no interest in reading a book that very clearly pushed an agenda (*cough*ScottWesterfeld*cough*). However, the book focuses mainly on natural selection and general observation and scientific method, and while some mentions of the clash between Genesis and Darwin’s theory are in the book, they’re dealt with much more matter-of-factly and historically, and less politically, which I liked.
What I didn’t like is the whole “girl hates what girls did back then and tries to be more progressive and feels stifled by her unprogressive society” trope. I’m thinking it’s because I’m an adult and so this sort of thing doesn’t really jive with me anymore. I’m past the point where I need to be told that I can be a naturalist if I want to. I’m past the point where I need to be told that it’s fine if I don’t know how to cook (but, seriously, housekeeping skills are dead useful. Where are the books where boys learn how to sew?). At least the grandfather states how he had to learn to knit during the war. That redeemed the trope for me a little.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is surprisingly (at least, for me) light-hearted, which actually made it a little disjointed for me. I kept expecting something bad to happen and kept seeing hints of things cropping up, only to find out that I was completely wrong. However, I still enjoyed the novel, despite the prominent archetype/trope present, which, to give credit where it’s due, is at least historically rooted and it make sense for Kelly to include it. I just wish it wasn’t also combined with “wild child” at the same time. I don’t see why Callie couldn’t have sewed well and also wanted to be a naturalist, but perhaps the uneven balance is necessary for a book aimed at middle-grade readers.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
“Anyway, as a thank-you, the great man sent me the bottled beast you see on the shelf next to the armadillo. It is my most prized possession.”
“Excuse me?” I said, looking up from the trilobite.
“The bottled beast you see there on the shelf.”
I looked at the monster in the thick glass carboy, with its freakish eyes and multiple limbs.
“It is a Sepia officinalis he collected near the Cape of Good Hope.”
“Who collected it?”
“We are speaking of Mr. Darwin.”
“We are?” I couldn’t believe it. “He sent you that?”
You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2tOgzpD