“‘Plato said all science begins with astonishment.'” – The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

February 16, 2010 at 2:41 am (Book review, books, Literature for young people)

Among the few gifts inherent in the recent back-to-back blizzards was the chance to get lots of reading done. One of the books I finished during the inundation was The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. This action of this young adult title, a 2010 Newbery Honor Book, takes place in Texas in 1899, and it features as its protagonist one Calpurnia Virginia Tate. The eleven-year-old Calpurnia, sometimes called Callie Vee, has her hands full learning to hold her own as the sole daughter in a  family of seven siblings. But she has a powerful ally and mentor in her grandfather. This elderly gentleman, a Civil War veteran, has a passionate interest in the natural world. Living as they do in the country, the Tates have abundant opportunities to observe that world. In the course of the novel,the grandfather’s passion passes directly to the granddaughter.

Callie’s ardor for science is, alas, not allowed free  reign. Her mother, a sweet but conventional woman, is determined to  teach her the housewifely arts of sewing, mending, and cooking. Callie has no interest in these pursuits, but her mother insists that she achieve at least a minimum competency  That this cramps the style of the budding scientist is putting it mildly!

In fact, Callie is not even sure that a woman can aspire to that lofty profession. But her grandfather soon sets her straight on that score as he rattles off names like Marie Curie, Martha Maxwell, Mary Anning, Isabella Bird, and Sophia Kovalevsky. (Of Maxwell and Anning I knew nothing. I was vaguely familiar with Isabella Bird. And I just had to smile at that last one. I had never heard of Sophia Kovalevsky before reading the title story in Alice Munro’s story collection, Too Much Happiness. Now I have encountered her in two different works of fiction in less than three months.)

Calpurnia Tate is by no means all work and no play. There are plenty of diversions, even a small Texas town at the turn of the century. In fact, there were perhaps a few too many – at least, for this reader. Like Heart of a Shepherd, which I wrote about recently, this novel is constructed as an episodic rather than a linear narrative. While this method of storytelling can be very effective in creating a world, it can also interfere with a crucial aspect of the plot; namely, pacing. I have, in the course of my reading life, occasionally enjoyed fiction whose plot did not follow a  strictly linear path. One example would be Shadow the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Another would be The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. Shadow moves back and forth in time with great fluidity, while Professor contains a lengthy digression that almost constitutes a novella-within-the-novel itself. And there’s Anita Brookner, whose novels are like still bodies of water with great depths to be plumbed.

On the whole, I prefer a tale with a trajectory straight as an arrow. I figure if it was good enough for Jane Austen,  Charles Dickens, et al., it is certainly good enough for me. This is probably the main reason that I love crime fiction (and true crime stories, too). The element of suspense in a novel – well, I find it indispensable. Now suspense is not necessarily a function of the plot. In Brookner’s 1984 tour de force Hotel Du Lac, it comes entirely through the main character, Edith Hope. There’s an electrifying, decisive moment in that novel that I shall never forget; it’s made all the more powerful by the outward calm that precedes it.

And oh my, what was I saying about digressions? As you have probably gathered, I did think that there was an intermittent problem with pacing in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. The  book is 338 pages long, and there were times when I became impatient with it. I very much liked  having a front row seat at the drama of Calpurnia’s  transformation, but the story kept going off on tangents of one sort or another, and not all were equally absorbing – at least, for me they weren’t.

First time novelist Jacqueline Kelly writes extremely well, especially when she’s describing natural phenomena and Callie’s response to them:

‘Then a hummingbird careened around a corner of the house and plunged into the trumpet of  the nearest lily drooping in the heat. Not finding it to his liking, he abruptly backed out and explored the next one. I sat a few feet away, entranced, close enough to hear the angry low-pitched buzzing of his wings, so at odds with his jewel-like appearance and jaunty attitude. The bird paused at the lip of a flower and then turned and caught sight of me. I froze. The bird stopped four inches shy of my face and hung there, I swear. I felt the tiny rush of wind from his wings against my forehead and reflexively, my eyes squeezed shut of their own accord. How I wish I’d been able to keep them open, but it was a natural reaction and I couldn’t stop myself. The second I opened them, the  bird flew off. He was the size of a winged pecan. Fueled by rage or curiosity–who could tell–he cared not at all that I could have crushed him with the lightest swat.

Kelly can also be very funny, especially when Calpurnia ruefully describes her forays into the housewifely arts: ‘Stitches dropped themselves and later reappeared at random so that the long striped scarf I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit.’

1 Comment

  1. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] George – Julian Barnes Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel An Imperfect Lens – Anne Roiphe The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate – Jacqueline Kelly […]

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