Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Biblio Bits The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, Henry Holt, 2009 (ISBN 9780805088410)

Reading Level/Interest Age 830 lexile/Ages 9-14

Genre Historical fiction

Plot Summary
Three older brothers, three younger brothers, and Calpurnia Tate (Callie) smack in the middle. What’s a girl to do? Set in rural Texas in 1899, and narrated by Callie, we get a view into Callie’s life on her family’s pecan and cotton plantation, told with a good dose of humor. At twelve, Callie has a lively mind and is curious about her surroundings. She wakes up extra early (to get a little quiet from all those brothers) and takes a notebook outside to record her nature observations. It turns out she’s not the only odd-ball in her family when Callie develops a friendship with her grandfather, who had been a real mystery up until that point. He kept to himself, did mysterious things behind the closed doors of his laboratory, and had a library that Callie and her brothers were forbidden from. It turns out that Grandaddy is a scientist himself, an amateur distiller and naturalist, who takes Callie under his wing, including her on his rambles through their property, examining and collecting specimens of flora and fauna, and teaching her the principles of scientific inquiry. In addition to Callie’s adventures in the natural world, there are also moments when the inventions of the time period come to the small town of Fentress, where Callie lives, such as the telephone line and a horseless carriage, giving a taste of what an exciting time this was. But when Callie’s mother decides that it’s high time Callie focus more on her domestic arts, like knitting, cooking, and needlework, she knows that her days rambling at the river are numbered.

Critical Evaluation
Calpurnia's story is an enjoyable one on many levels. Kelly does an excellent job of evoking both a historical time period and a personal time period, including the details of the time and culture, as well as Callie's own self-revelations, self-doubt, and cusping maturity. The language of the book is appropriately matched to the period, without seeming pedantic or heavy, and the flavor of Callie's narrative sparks with her humor and sense of life. There are some excellent vocabulary words sprinkled throughout, which will please the language arts teachers, and just the right amount of context to sort out their meanings. Callie's relationships with her family members develop during the course of the story, as readers come to sort out all those brothers. Of particular interest, historically, is Callie's relationship with the family's quadroon cook; Callie respects her as an almost-member of the family, but Viola is reticent to be overly-familiar. The post-emancipation period is not addressed directly, but certain details (share-cropping, short hoes in cotton farming, etc.) emerge as supporting points in the story. The "trueness" of Calpurnia's character and her internal complexity brought Anastasia Krupnik (Lois Lowry) to mind—as well as her great sense of humor. Ultimately, the ending has some uncertainty, which leaves room for speculation.

Reader's Annotation
Is there a place for Callie in the Texas of 1899, outside of the limits of sock-making for all six of her brothers, her father, AND her grandfather? Smart, clever, and inclined towards science, Callie's breaking new ground, just like the lines for the telephone wire.

Author Information
Jacqueline Kelly was born in New Zealand, raised in Vancouver (BC), and eventually moved to Texas where she attended medical school and law school. She first practiced medicine, then law, before deciding to write fiction full-time, according to her website. The had a short story published in the Mississippi Review in 2001. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is her first novel. She resides in Texas. (Information in this author biography is from the author's website.)

Challenge issues
There are plenty of people who don't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, just as in Calpurnia's time. Also, there is maybe one, minor swear word.

Booktalking Ideas
The historical, rural setting, family antics, and humor bring to mind some booktalking "friends" for this title, such as Harris and Me (Gary Paulsen) and Our Only May Amelia (Jennifer L. Holm). It could fit equally well with some nonfiction titles, such as Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith (Deborah Heligman) and Animals Darwin Saw: An Around-the-World Adventure (Sandra Markle). Women and science would be another logical category to fit this book into.

Curriculum Ties
Science—Darwin, natural history, nature observation
Social studies—Reconstruction era, critical inventions of the period, cusp of the industrial revolution

Why this book?
A smart and spunky girl main character who is fighting against the societal norms of her time, funny dialogue and a poignant plot, and evocative description and narrative will certainly appeal to many girls and boys (who don't mind a "girly" cover). An example of historical fiction at its best.

Starred reviews in several review sources, but no awards yet.

Rockport Public Library owns?

No comments: