Thursday, June 21, 2012

12. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

By Jacqueline Kelly

I’m generally fond of coming of age tales and 19th century naturalists, so when I heard about this YA novel about a 12-year-old girl in turn of the century rural Texas who bonds with her distant grandfather by studying the natural world around them, I couldn’t resist and requested this as a Christmas gift.

I’m also glad that I delayed reading this until my summer vacation in Northern California, where we explored parts of the Sierra Foothills, Lake Oroville, the Redwood Forests, and the coastal sand dunes. Our trip culminated in a stay at a lovely garden cottage, where we saw a variety of birds. The surroundings provided the perfect backdrop to read Kelly's passages describing how Calpurnia and Grandfather Tate observe the wildlife on their estate.

Kelly has an engaging, naturalistic style which suits the realistic character-driven story about a girl with a thirst for knowledge who is obviously torn between her duties as a dutiful daughter and striking out on her own in some way despite 19th century restrictions. There are no dramatic arches or life-changing revelations for Calpurnia that tend to occur in coming-of-age novels, and the young heroine, portrayed as innately curious, intelligent and observant, was also refreshingly free of the annoying trappings of the “precocious adolescent” found in way too many books of this ilk.  Calpurnia spoke, thought and behaved like a twelve year old girl would (instead of, say, talking like an old man in those Flavia de Luce books).

Certain readers who prefer a more dynamically constructed heroine, or something more plot-driven, might be disappointed at the lowkeyness of this novel. Even as a character-driven story, the protagonist Calpurnia evolves gradually. She is obviously in conflict with pleasing her mother and wishing to fulfill her dreams of becoming a naturalist, and you know that her progress will be a difficult one. I also appreciated the subtle and somewhat ambiguous ending. You’re left unsure as to whether Calpurnia will ever realize her dream of becoming a naturalist, or even be permitted to attend university. Events happen, but they unfold in a normal, everyday kind of way.

Wikipedia provides a very appropriate summary of the ending and theme:

Callie fears that her free-roaming days may be at an end, though, when she receives a frightening Christmas gift: a book from her mother entitled "The Science of Housewifery". 

Throughout the novel, Callie must learn to balance her own independent and curious personality with the restrictions placed on a girl at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. As new inventions are presented in Callie's life, she adjusts and evolves, first with the wind machine her brother brings home, then with a marvelous new beverage called Coca Cola. 

Ultimately, though, it is the introduction of the telephone in the small Texas town that symbolizes the changes ahead for Callie. As Granddaddy tells her, "The old century is dying, even as we watch. Remember this day.” As the book ends, the 20th century dawns, leaving the reader hopeful that it will bring with it new opportunities for the feisty young Calpurnia. 

A very thoughtful and engaging story overall.  This is the kind of book I would like to hold onto for my currently incubating daughter when she grows old enough to read!

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