Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

It is 1899 and Calpurnia is the only daughter in a sea of six brothers. After making some astute comments about grasshoppers that show a talent and inclination for observation, she is taken under her grandfather’s wing and a whole world of scientific discovery opens up to her.

I loved Calpurnia from the first page, which is no small feat, really. I often tend not to like historical fiction with girl characters simply because they often feature girls with modern sensibilities plunked down in historic settings. I just don’t believe in them or the places their stories go. Now, Calpurnia, on the other hand, I believed. She is mildly dissatisfied at the beginning of the book, she’s prone to bending the rules a bit, but she seems to be a creature of her time. The catalyst for change is her grandfather. Once she begins spending time with him, her mind grows and expands, she senses and desires new possibilities. She is fully aware that there is a great chance her dreams will go unfulfilled, despite the fact that her “womanly arts” of sewing, knitting, and cooking are sadly lacking in inspiration.

I truly enjoyed her burgeoning relationship with her grandfather. It is amazing how their feelings for each other grow into such a loving respectful inter-generational partnership. Especially when you consider where they were at the beginning of the book:

The old man had fierce tufty eyebrows of his own, rather like a dragon’s, and he was altogether too imposing a figure for me to have clambered on as an infant. He had never spoken to me directly that I remembered, and I wasn’t entirely convinced he knew my name.

The description and language in this book was heavenly.

I have to hand it to the author, she didn’t take the book where I thought it would go. There was no pat, happy conclusion to this novel where Calpurnia gets to set off to college and study science. No siree. The novel ends and we have no definite answer to tell us whether or not Calpurnia achieves her dream of university. Frankly, I think the book is stronger for it. We know Calpurnia is a strong-willed, smart girl, but we are also well aware she is subject to forces beyond her control. I like the open-endedness. That way children reading can hope and adults don’t have to feel too sad thinking how Calpurnia most likely spent the rest of her life in a position similar to her mother.

I did have a few reservations. The book is told first person, but I never did catch on whether or not it was a in-the-moment-as-it-happens story or a grown Calpurnia memoir-ish retelling. In all honesty, it felt like sort of a mish-mash of the two. It didn’t bother me so much, but I felt like the point of view got confused on occasion and recollections or observations that would be obvious and appropriate for a grown-up Calpurnia to make sounded odd if this was an as-it-happens story. I’m specifically referring to a couple of the jokes told about her mother’s tonic and its alcohol content. Humorous for sure, but perhaps out of place?

The race relations (the few and far between times they arise in the story) also gave me occasional pause. It wasn’t so much what the characters said, because what they said made perfect sense in context to the time period and their social status, it was more that the author did not present a fuller reality. When Calpurnia asks her grandfather about how Viola, their black cook, can stand her never-ending hard workday he replies, “It’s all Viola knows…and when something is all you know, it’s easy to stand it. There is one other thing she knows: Her life could be much harder.” It wasn’t that this was a terrible response, it just felt inadequate. Yes, it is very true her life could be much harder than her life working sun up to sun down every day with no holidays. I believe that was her life. It is just that she isn’t in that situation because “that’s all she knows,” it is also that Viola is sorely lacking in options because she is black. It is after all only 1899, not a terribly long time after slavery ended. I’m not sure how old viola is, but there is also the chance that she was the Tate house slave before emancipation and entangled in the bindings that would bring. And I should say that does Kelly deal with this issue, albeit with great subtlety. Viola, for what little she is part of the book, is a remarkably well-rounded character. She speaks little, but what she says speaks volumes and the sub-text (at least for this adult reader) was loud and clear.

Despite my reservations, I thought this was a delightful book. I enjoyed Calpurnia’s story immensely and was happy to have followed her on her journey of self-discovery.

Book Source: Library Copy

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