The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly;
Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2009; $17.99
Calpurnia Tate is the kind of eleven-year-old who is always asking questions—questions about nature and animals and insects, such as why do dogs need eyebrows, or can earthworms be trained? Such topics fascinate her. The only person who can answer them is her grandfather, who spends his time either in his laboratory, trying to make whisky out of pecans, or out in the quiet Texas woods of 1899, picking his way through the underbrush, examining plants and various toads. Unfortunately, Calpurnia finds his bushy eyebrows and scratchy voice imposing and so contents herself with writing the questions down in a notebook one of her six brothers had given her.
One day, a question about grasshoppers nags at her so much that she simply has to confront her fears and ask her grandfather. Rather than answering her question, he simply tells her, “I suspect a smart young whip like you can figure it out. Come back and tell me when you have.” This is something I hear a lot from the teachers at my Montessori school—they encourage me to figure out the problem at hand for myself, instead of having one of them solve it. Calpurnia and her grandfather end up growing closer because of their shared love of science and nature. They go on walks together, and these are some of my favorite scenes in the book, the two of them tromping out into the woods that surround Calpurnia’s home, observing, taking notes on, and collecting samples of the lush green forest that surrounds them. I, for one, can understand why she was so in love with nature. Last summer, I went on a weeklong hiking trip in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There were so many beautiful sights, and I loved just leaving technology behind and being able to get a close look at the beautiful world surrounding me.
In sharp contrast to her grandfather, Calpurnia’s mother wants her to stay inside and act like a lady, which means learning to sew and knit, neither of which she cares for. Even worse, she expects Calpurnia to be a debutante, basically an upper-class young lady who has reached the age of maturity and is ready to be introduced to society through debutante balls. Worst of all, it means you are ready to get married, something Calpurnia views as being stuffed into fancy dresses and put up for auction to the highest bidder. So when Calpurnia announces one night at the table that she wants to go to college to become a scientist, her mother is very unhappy.
This book made me curious and had me asking questions of my own, like, How many types of trees are in the world? (about 100,000); and, How old is the oldest tree? (a bristlecone pine tree from California’s White Mountains is thought to be almost 5,000 years old). The author, Jacqueline Kelly, does a wonderful job of creating the characters and giving them each a unique personality. Calpurnia’s mother rules the house with an authoritative and firm grasp, daring all living under her roof to try and disobey her. Meanwhile, her youngest brother J.B.’s docility and cheerful outlook on the world manage to calm Calpurnia, especially after an exasperating lecture about ladyhood given by her mother. This book made me want to go explore outside. I would recommend this book to any scientist, as well as my fellow tree-huggers.