"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend

origins and (r)evolutions

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Henry Holt and Company, 2009.

340 pages.

I came across Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate via the blogosphere. I think the site was doing a comparison between this fiction novel and the non-fiction Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (another Henry Holt & Co. published book with silhouette artwork on the cover). No, the analysis wasn’t an in depth comparative study, just one of those fun things you do when you come across books of similar subjects, themes, etc. Both books revolve around Charles Darwin.

I haven’t read Heiligman’s Charles and Emma. I rarely read non-fiction, and when I do I have a stack of non-Juvenile, non-Teen to keep me busy. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate does not convince me for the ambition for a comparative either. However, Kelly’s work does have the feel of the creative non-fiction. The narrator is remembering back to her childhood when she is 11 years old in Fentress, Texas starting in summer of 1899 (2) and ending the story with the turn of the century. Kelly is being informative and educational creatively but with a purpose; of course, narrator Calpurnia, no matter how old, is fictional (thus impossible to actually be categorized non-fiction).

Each chapter begins with an epigraph, a quote from Charles Darwin’s The Origins of the Species.  (Their citation is above the copyright information). The epigraph (as it should) primes each chapter even as the chapters run along in a linear time-line and segue fairly reasonably. The only deviation of form, not in epigraph-use, but ease of flow is Chapter 4 “Viola.” It is not disinteresting, and the gap may be filled, but it appeared an oddity in the sequence of things is all.

I was trying to explain the book to the daughter (who is 9 and an avid reader). I botched it, apparently badly enough for me to erase the incident for recollection. As I continued to read, a better pitch arrived: “Natalya, you like Little House on the Prairie books…” I’ve read enough not to like them (I think primarily out of contrariness—because as a girl reader I should). I liked The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate enough. And it holds a similar feel. A girl’s life over a span of time: her experiences, her family, her historically fictionalized world that holds all kinds of intriguing details of the life and times… Calpurnia Virginia Tate, “Callie Vee,” is observant and different, curious; intelligent and tom-boyish enough.

The glimpse into 1899 in small town West Texas is interesting and should provide plenty of fodder for conversations and trips to encyclopedic reference materials. Though it should be noted that the book is fiction, and a perusal of the acknowledgments is necessary; the author admits to loosely using certain facts and occurrences to her own story enhancing necessity.

The exploration of Darwin’s Origin of the Species by a girl in 1899 is the landscape. Though I think girls would enjoy this read more (as a means to compare and consider past and present), boys should enjoy this novel too. If a teacher could get the word Evolution past parent and school admin The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate would make for a great read aloud. A teacher could almost go one chapter and stop and discuss before going on to the next. Kelly presents Darwin ideas in practical application through both Calpurnia and her grandfather’s observations and experiments. The story encourages the practice of The Scientific Method, and useful and proper recording practices of observation. The story would also interrogate the plausibility of evolutionary ideas where they might apply; as a good study might.

Best is the conflict our protagonist Calpurnia undergoes (and promises to continue undergoing). What is her place in the order of things? And is the place her mother would direct her where she was truly born to occupy? Callie Vee has had her eyes opened through an educational opportunity her grandfather is providing her as a Naturalist and fan of Darwin. She contemplates an alternate future, one that seems to fit and hold her interest. Her future and present interests conflict with societal and familial expectation. There are other characters who do not conform to prescription so easily either, and are presented in more subtle overtures. If one had the inclination it could be listed that all the other characters do not fit in some manner or another; at least the ones lifted out of the flat of the page.

Kelly does well in the characterizations, her settings and descriptors are excellent. Her vocabulary is quickly noted as superb. Once I convince Natalya to read this book I am going to remind her to have a pencil at hand after the end of every read to go back and find all those wonderful words (and then look them up). Also, Natalya should note references, metaphors and similes to things she probably won’t recognize. The author artfully litters the novel with references to Classics. The references, often used to aid in describing something (an emotion or object, etc), remind the reader that the narrator is not the 11-year-old Calpurnia, but the future Calpurnia. The things she is seeing, describing for the reader is from memory and from future. There are nice little allusions to events and inventions that will soon come to pass; sooner than even those few dreaming characters would imagine. The narrator knows things, things we know or should know, even if dates elude us.

The inside of the book jacket reads: “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.” That really is the book in a nutshell. Calpurnia is funny and interesting; which is how I turned the pages. The story moves along fairly quickly; though the ideas and diction slow the reader…or should.

I can see this book as a Hallmark or Lifetime film; take that as you will. But as a film they would have to change the ending a bit for viewer’s tastes. The ending is…literary? There is no great swell of music to end in cathartic, heart-pounding release. At best there is a fluttering flame of hope beginning to reside somewhere in the chest cavity or possibly mind’s eye. I don’t want to say the end fails. And the story did need to end. But as Calpurnia is not at end, what end is there? She has only really been set on her way—again—as she was set on her way at the beginning. I suppose as she ‘evolves’ she will be set on her way many times over.  We can only guess how that works out. Another re-read and I could sculpt a plausible trajectory; at the very least we can note that Calpurnia learns to spell and increases her knowledge of both society and academia exponentially. Something to play with… and I hope it remains play. It would be refreshing for the thoughtful and witty Jacqueline Kelly to let The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate remain and give us another story with another stage of interesting characters.


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate should be of interest to:  Historical Fiction fans, juvenile or no; cult followers of Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables or those readers of Dickens (there are a lot of references to his work); those tired of series’ and vampires, werewolves, and fairies; those who like words; and/or those not afraid to contemplate evolution (whether macro-, micro-, or even cultural).

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