The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (2009), by Jacqueline Kelly, 338 pp.
So, 21st century women: Take away your conveniences, your open-minded views of gender roles, your comfortable ease with addressing intellectual challenges, and how would you do?
Would you chafe at the piano lessons and sunny afternoons spent inside — knitting — with your mother, while your brothers romp outside? Would you resent that no one cares if you’re curious about the life that teems outside your door, in the fields, by the stream, in every tree and shrub? Would it bother you that what you’re learning in school is superficial and out-of-date?
Calpurnia Tate, called Callie Vee by nearly everyone, is this girl, trying to make her family see that she’s different from other girls, that she wants to go a different way. Only her grandfather notices, but this is where Calpurnia’s luck holds. For he’s an amateur botanist, and he trains her to observe the world, helping her see different options for herself, despite her mother’s pressures to conform to ideals of femininity.
Calpurnia starts her observation journal, and you can almost imagine her, in her 60s, pulling it out to show the newspaper reporter how her long career in science began.
Yet fighting conventions isn’t easy. Calpurnia still has to squeeze in the piano lessons and the knitting, even some disastrous cooking lessons, for these are what girls are supposed to do. All this in preparation for marriage and motherhood.
It’s a joy to watch Calpurnia’s relationship with her grandfather mature from June 1899 to January 1900, all involving a possibly new species of hairy vetch. But her life isn’t just looking at plants. Her brother’s two love affairs, a county fair, a piano recital, and the arrival of the telephone and automobile cause commotion at appropriate levels.
Kelly gives us a wonderful snapshot of that moment in childhood when everything seems on the verge of desperate calamity. How Calpurnia works her way through these challenges gives you hope for her future.