Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (5/5 stars)

I will be honest I picked up this book because I loved the cover, then I read the premise and it sounded interesting. I am so glad I read this book, it was an awesome and wonderful read.

Calpurnia is an eleven year old girl who lives in south at the turn of the 19th century. This book takes place in the summer of 1899; just as wonderful things like Coca-cola, telephones, and cars are being introduced to the region. Calpurnia (usually called Callie) is struggling through a long hot summer as the only girl in the family (she has six brothers). Then one day she wonders why the green grasshoppers and the yellow ones are different. She decides to ask her somewhat intimidating grandfather. Her grandfather opens up a whole new world to her. He used to be a naturalist for National Geographic and now he is teaching Callie all about the science behind nature, how to be a good scientist, and how to be a naturalist. Callie loves spending time learning about how to be a good scientist, unfortunately as the only daughter in the family, domestic issues rear their ugly head. Callie is expected to learn things like sewing, cooking, and tatting. She struggles with her parents expectations of her as a daughter even as she gets deeper and deeper into the science of what it means to be a naturalist.

I loved this book. The book is written in a wonderful way and has a great sense of humor about things. All of the characters in the book are well developed; and Kelly writes in such a way that you are really brought into the South during that hot summer. There are little things added in that keep the story engaging and give it some urgency; so it ends up being very hard to put down and quite the page turner.

Calpurnia is an intriguing character. She is smart and she is fair in how she judges things (although sometimes it is hard to be fair). Even as she hates learning domestic chores she does grudgingly recognize the value in learning them. She struggles with trying to figure out how she can fit science into her parents' idea of what a girl should be. This insight and thoughtfulness makes for a wonderful character. At one point she recognizes the futility of her mother's work as she discusses how her poor mother labors over house, cloths and food and then has nothing to show for it when it all needs to be done again the next day.

Callie also has a wonderful sense of humor; at one point wondering why she can't get a wife of her own to do all of these horrible chores. Much of the second half of this book has Callie struggling with gender roles. She sees the necessity of them, but she can't fathom why her brothers can't do domestic work so she can have more time for science. It is people like Callie, that made it so women like myself can make a good career out of science without causing too much trouble in this day and age.

Kelly does a wonderful job of showing life in the south as it was at that time. I loved watching the characters experience phones, cars, and Coca-cola for the very first time. The whole book was just a pleasure to read as you witness Callie's brothers' antics as well as her own.

Kelly also did an excellent job of presenting scientific theory in a wonderful and interesting way. Kelly really captures the wonder of discovery and the things that drive scientists to do what they do. This book will make you re-examine the world around you and take new wonder in everything you see. As a scientist myself, this book really made me remember why I do what I do.

I really loved this book. Not only was it a great portrait of that late 1800's, but Calpurnia really captured my heart both as a girl and as a scientist. I was a little disappointed that we didn't find out what Calpurnia's future was going to be. But, that wasn't the point of the story and the story ended as it should have; it ended realistically. Still, I can't help but wish I could read more about Calpurnia in a future book.

This is definitely a keeper. A great book for all ages, genders, and interests. I will definitely be keeping tabs on Jacqueline Kelly to see what wonderful thing she writes next.

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