‘The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate’ is a historical novel written by Jacqueline Kelly for young adults . The story begins in hot summer of 1899, a few decades after the Civil War, when Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee, is about to turn twelve. She is the only girl among seven children. She is a middle child born between 6 brothers. Callie lives on a Texas farm with her parents, six brothers, and a grandfather, Walter Tate, an inaugural member of the National Geographic Society. Calpurnia’s father, Alfred Tate, owns a big cotton gin and her brothers, who are all named after heroes of Texas fight for independence, are wild. Behind her house, past her grandfather’s laboratory, where the old man spends his time trying to distill pecans, are old slave quarters. An old black woman, SanJuanna, and the cook, Viola, work in the house to help Calpurnia’s mother, Margaret, a traditional woman, who frequently takes doses of Lydia Pinkham’s “tonic water” when stressed (Garcia, 2010).
Callie has always known that she is different because unlike other girls her age, she has no interest in sewing, cooking, and other activities, which women are expected to do in their time. Despite her mother’s efforts in trying to bring her up like a proper lady, Callie still prefers to swim in the river nearby pecan plantation of her family to escape the heat rather than rest in the afternoon as the rest of her family does. She finds herself incapable of the skills her mother desperately tries to teach her as she can cook nothing but cheese sandwiches and soft boiled eggs. She is a smart girl, who loves nature and writes interesting questions and scientific observations down in her red notebook given to her by Harry, her oldest brother. Her interest in exploring nature and science leads to an increasingly close and life-changing relationship with her grandfather, an avid naturalist who had been a mysterious and daunting figure with a fondness for only appearing at mealtime.
One day, Calpurnia notices grasshoppers in the lawn around her house. They were different: yellow and green. She wonders why the yellow ones are much bigger than the green ones and why they appear only in summer. She, therefore, decides to borrow a controversial book “Origin of the Species” by Charles Darwin from the public library. Unfortunately, this resulted in an unpleasant encounter with the lady librarian, who refuses to lend her the book because it is not good for a Christian girl. Calpurnia, therefore, is forced to look for the book in the other place. After the incident, Calpurnia is forced to gather her courage and consult her grandfather about grasshoppers. Fortunately for her, her grandfather has a copy of the book in his library, which he lends to her. This becomes the beginning of collaboration and friendship between the two, and Callie soon finds herself spending all of her time with her grandfather. Her summer becomes more interesting as she follows him along river banks to collect specimen and observe bacteria through a microscope (Lauren, 2011).
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However, her mother has different plans for her and relentlessly tries to turn her daughter into a respected lady. Much to Callie’s fright, she buys her a book “The Science of Housewifery” as a Christmas gift. In addition, she is forced to take piano classes and cook to prepare herself to enter the society to one day find a husband and keep her own house. Unlike her, Callie's best friend Lula Gates is a real lady, who succeeds in all pursuits that Callie miserably fails. In fact, Lula wins prizes for her embroidery and her proper ladylike character makes Callie’s three brothers fall in love with her.
At school, she attends lessons of spelling, reading, arithmetic, and deportment, where she gets an unsatisfactory result for Use of Hankie and Thimble, making her mother really disappointed. She is, however, not allowed to take science classes but is expected to spend her free time learning how to cook, knit, and play the piano in order to be a proper lady. Though she thinks that learning these chores is important, Callie cannot understand why her brothers cannot do domestic work so that she could have time for science. She, however, loves her siblings, especially her oldest brother, Harry Tate, who is kind to her and often is going out of his way to make her smile. She is possessive of him, so when he falls in love, she tries to come between him and his potential fiancé.
Within the course of summer, Callie and her grandfather discover a piece of vetch, a twining plant that they think might be previously undiscovered species, and submit it to the Smithsonian Institution. Also, Callie keeps a caterpillar Petey as a pet until it turns into a moth rather than a butterfly as she had expected. She adjusts and evolves as new inventions appear in her life: the wind machine, a ventilator, a revolutionary invention of the time that her brother shows to her. During the trip to the Fentress fair, Callie samples several glasses of the fizzy new beverage, Coca-Cola, which is loved by many children. She also gets to see the just-released first automobile. Later on, the Bell Telephone company installs the first telephone. The whole small town in Texas gathers to watch this installation.
The main character, Callie is dynamic as she grows and changes over the year. She wants to discover herself and is different than other people around. For example, while everyone else takes a nap in the afternoon to escape scorching heat, she prefers to take a swim in the river. She also decides to become a naturalist by her own choice and writes down observations about nature in her red note book. She is curious as she wonders why the cardinals behave so strangely and why dogs have eyebrows. She also notices two types of grasshoppers and seeks to find out their differences despite the fact that no one else seems to care where they came from. This she seeks to find out by borrowing the infamous “The Origin of Species” book by Charles Darwin. She is courageous and inquisitive. This is seen when she decides to ask her then intimidating grandfather about the grasshoppers. She is loving and friendly as she develops a deep connection with her grandfather and her siblings, especially her oldest brother Harry (Kelly, 2009).
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The book describes Callie’s personal growth and struggle. The year 1900 together with its great inventions marks the beginning of a new century loaded with unforeseen events, which promise a bright future. Callie's has a dream, which she is scared to say out loud. This dream is to study in a university and become a scientist in the future. She is, however, not sure if it is possible for a woman to become a scientist. This is because the switchboard operator of her town’s only telephone and her teachers are the only working women she knows.
Throughout the book Callie struggles with trying to figure out how she can fit science and her own independence into her parent’s and society’s expectations of what a girl should be. The novel is episodic as the story follows a young girl who rather than facing and overcoming a particular obstacle, goes through the process of self-discovery. This is because despite reading about the changes witnessed at the beginning of a new dawn, the author does not tell whether Callie overcomes the barriers, which women of that time faced in the society. She leaves the book open as she does not state whether Calpurnia achieves her desires of going to university and becoming a scientist.
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Another character is Callie’s grandfather, a war veteran and retired businessman, whom she and the rest of the family have always avoided. He can be considered a semi-round character, who helps develop the story as he is responsible for nurturing Callie’s love for science and nature. Though portrayed as distant and intimidating in the beginning, he opens up to his only granddaughter after realizing that they share a mutual interest. He cultivates her interest, not only in botany, but in all kinds of knowledge by lending her his secret copy of the book “The Origin of the Species”. This is an example of the primary theme of the novel, evolution, which is carried out in several ways throughout the book. Each chapter of the book begins with a quote from Darwin, which the author relates to Calpurnia and her family’s life. The theme is further developed as Calpurnia grows up as a child and emerges as a mature young lady searching for her place in the world.
Callie’s mother, another main character, can be considered flat and one-dimensional. This is because she does not change or grow in the plot, but rather sticks to the traditional perception of the role of a lady in the society. She solidly enforces these expectations on Calpurnia by making her take piano and cooking lessons in order for her to become a lady and a fine homemaker when the time comes. This creates the central conflict of the story because unlike Callie’s grandfather who nurtures her interest for science and nature, Callie’s mother expects her to act like a proper lady and considers her grandfather a bad influence. Throughout the book, Calpurnia has almost a cruel disregard for her mother’s intelligence because she does not understand why her mother works around the house without any financial benefits. However, towards the end of the book, Viola, their maid, explains to Callie that the reason why her mother wants her to attend coming out parties is because she herself missed out on them because of the war. This somehow makes Margaret Tate a sympathetic character (Media, 2007).
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The book ends on the morning of January 1, 1900, the beginning of a new century. The author does not tell whether Callie managed to pursue her interest in science, but leaves it open-ended. However, with the new changes introduced, I was hopeful that the dawn of the new century brought new opportunities for the feisty young Callie
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