I had just finished the biography of Darwin and opened the beautifully-covered young-adult novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, when I saw that the first chapter began with the Origin of Species. In fact, every chapter began with a quote from Origin. With evolution in the title, that should not have been so surprising, but I had chosen the intriguing cover for my next book for its whimsy, not evolution, so the focus on Darwin seemed serendipitous.
Isn’t it lovely when a beautiful cover, a truly beautiful cover, folds over an equally beautiful story? When I read the back flap and saw that this was Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel, I could not believe it. Calpurnia and her family are such rich characters in such a rich Texas setting that no debut novelist could have created them, but here they were. Kelly sets the story in 1899 where Calpurnia’s part of Texas has more of a foot in the nineteenth century than it is looking forward to the twentieth. Calpurnia is the only daughter in a prosperous farm family with six brothers. Her mother has headaches and drinks medicinal potions, which Calpurnia later discovers are twenty percent alcohol. Her oldest brother is starting to court, but not always showing good taste in young women. Her youngest brothers are raising kittens and being little boys, while the middle brothers begin to follow their older brother’s lead and show an interest in girls, particularly Calpurnia’s best friend, much to her dismay.
Calpurnia is not interested in knitting and needlework, or the cooking her mother tries to encourage. She is far more interested in the world around her outdoors, particularly insects. Her oldest brother gives her a notebook in which to record her observations and this attempt to keep a younger sister out of his hair leads Calpurnia to science and, as important, to her grandfather, who lives with the family, but is an obscure figure who retreats to his library and his laboratory in the old slave quarters out back. He notices Calpurnia when he sees her recording in the notebook and, in light of her poor observations, takes her under his wing and opens the world of the Victorian naturalist to her. When Calpurnia it spurned by the local librarian for seeking Origin of Species, Grandfather gives her his copy, demonstrating his trust in her care and her ability to understand serious science.
They spend long afternoons collecting specimens and recording their findings. Calpurnia helps him track his experiments at turning pecans into a consumable liquor. He refuses to give her answers to her questions, but gives her the tools with which to answer them herself. When Calpurnia despairs at the impossibility of her becoming a scientist, he reminds her of the great women scientists of history. Grandfather is a treasure.
Grandfather worries over the little time he has left and Calpurnia speaks so often of how he is her salvation on the farm that I began to fear the book would end with Grandfather’s passing, but Kelly saves us from that. Like the caterpillar she captures and raises through its life cycle, Calpurnia consumes knowledge and grows, enters the cocoon of despair at her limited opportunities as a young girl in Texas in 1899, then emerges bright, shiny,and optimistic without our seeing her truly take flight.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is magical. I am so glad I read it. I am so glad I read it after Darwin’s biography. I cannot wait until my young naturalist is ready to read it, too.