June 28, 2011

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - by Jacqueline Kelly

I thought this book had a cool cover, so I read it. I thought it would be a book that would mainly interest girls, and it probably is.  I thought it would be a little boring, and it... WAS NOT!  Imagine that you're a 12-year-old girl in Texas in 1899, with all the limitations and expectations that come with that.  What are those?  Let's see: You must wear a bonnet and skirts, learn to keep house and knit, cook and clean, play the piano and have social graces, and of course give up any chance of ever having a career of your own unless you want to be a lonely spinster school teacher.  Equal rights?  Yeah, right.

Now imagine that you're Calpurnia Tate, the only girl in her large family, and granddaughter to the mysterious and grumpy Mr. Tate, who also happens to be a famous naturalist and scientist.  When her grandpa takes her under her wing and begins to give her the education he thinks she deserves, but which stands in direct opposition to her mother's plans for her.  Calpurnia is stuck in the middle, begin to see herself as a scientist and a strong, independent woman, but facing the bleak housewifey future of her parents' expectations.  Does she have the will to break from her family and plot her own course into the new century, heading off to University to become a scientist, or will her destiny be that which her parents have forecast?  The answer isn't as clear as you might expect, but in showing Calpurnia's growth (or evolution) through the book, the author gives us hope and  lets us, the readers, put the final touches on young Miss Tate's fate.

This really is a fabulous book, realistic and full of interesting people, places, and ideas. The ideas of Charles Darwin play heavily and help shape Calpurnia's thinking and her relationship with her grandpa.  The writing is smart, careful, and nuanced, and will delight readers who appreciate well-crafted prose and straightforward but captivating plots.  There's not much adventure, no violence, nothing disgusting, and not much humor, so it's not a book for everyone. Young ladies who have an interest in science and nature are obviously the ideal readers, but I can't think of anyone who couldn't benefit from reading this delightful story.

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