The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Henry Holt & Co, 2009
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. 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 comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.
Kelly’s debut novel is a wonderful exposé on Southern society life at the turn of the 20th century, rife with subtexts and references to post-slavery issues and mindsets, the rise of modern machinery like the car and telephone, and the clear and unbalanced gender lines that existed and the struggle of one girl to overcome those.
In particular, this is an important novel for those looking into pursuing sciences, especially because of the constant references and education around naturalism, its rise into society, the opposition it received from schools and a predominantly Christian culture, and the important role it played in the emergence of a new humanity in over the 20th century.
Calpurnia is a delight to follow as she begins to notice the world around her. In her own evolution, she begins in the larval stage and moves through pupae, cocoon, and eventually becomes a bright and beautiful butterfly (or moth as is a symbolic reference in the book). Kelly is witty and clever in her treatment of Calpurnia’s growth as a person, a scientist, and a courageous and curious mind. She exhibits a vast range of human emotion, showing empathy, sadness, self-sacrifice and exuberant joy, clearly a believable and lovable character.
Kelly also has deftly woven passages from Darwin’s Origin of Species, cunningly breaking the 4th wall for the reader in an effort to compare the evolution of Calpurnia and her world to that of Darwin’s scientific expositions.
For those looking for an excellent read that contains layers of depth that can be turned to several times before fully comprehending everything, then this is the perfect novel. I recommend it to all readers 10+.
For the Classroom
Given the nature of this book as historical fiction during the run of the 20th century in Texas, and all of the elements that saturated American society of that time—post slavery issues, futurism and the rise of new machines like the automobile and the telephone, etc—this novel would make an excellent classroom companion for studying any of the above elements. Also, the vast number references to naturalism makes it a wealth for young minds.