Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Review of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
I'm going to cheat a little with this review. I'll give you a basic, short plot summary and tell you why I liked it - but then I'm sending you over to another blog so you can read a terrific review by three librarians who write for the Stacked blog.
It's 1899 and Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee) is about to turn 12. Unfortunately, this seems to mean the end of childhood and the beginning of a long, slow, tedious slide toward marriage - knitting, tatting, piano lessons, cooking lessons, and no real fun at all.
Just in the nick of time, Callie meets her Granddaddy. Now, he was there all along, living in the big house on the farm along with Callie, her mom and dad, her six brothers, and the cook. However, he had been a mysterious and daunting figure with a long white beard and a penchant for only appearing at mealtime until Callie consults him one day about a matter that has been puzzling her (it has to do with grasshoppers). It turns out that they are kindred spirits whose mutual interest in natural science has them tramping through the land making observations and collecting samples. Soon, Callie is spending most of her time with Granddaddy.
Meanwhile, several of Callie's brothers are falling for her best friend Lula, her favorite and oldest brother is having his own romantic endeavors, and Callie's mom is stepping up her efforts to turn Callie into a marriagable lady. An unfortunate piano recital, a trip to the fair during which Callie samples several glasses of that new drink Coca-Cola, and a possible discovery of a new species of vetch are some of the events that occur on the eve of the new century.
Some reviewers have commented that Callie's voice, while wry and witty, is way too knowing and adult to be that of an 11-year-old. For me, this problem was cleared up early on (page 2, actually) when Callie says "My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back then everybody called me Callie Vee. That summer, I was eleven years old..." Well, there you go. An older Callie is looking back at the summer of her 12th year. Problem solved, as far as I'm concerned.
This novel is made up of people (mostly family, but some other folks too), small events, mealtimes and holidays, frustrations and hopes. Plotwise, it's not amazingly exciting - but it's about a regular person's life, and a regular person's life can be fascinating without many thrills and chills. Kelly's delicious prose perfectly evokes a very smart girl thrashing rather creatively against the constraints of her time. Not only did Callie come absolutely alive for me, but so did Granddaddy and several of her brothers. Not all of them (well, there ARE six) and not her best friend Lula (who seems a bit drippy, as even Callie remarks) - but still, Callie and Granddaddy are really all we need.
Read Jennifer, Kimberly, and Kelly's review for some interesting comments on the Texas setting, the possibly problematic length and plotlessness, and the excellent (if perhaps too adult) writing style.