When being a 11-year-old girl was actually fun

May 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a thick, comforting, warm, and immensely lovely book. I loved how it did not have any particular story arc or narrative peak, yet remained compulsively readable thanks to Kelly’s gorgeous writing style. It’s gorgeous writing because of her simple yet fleshed out prose, sentences running languorously under events, thoughts, and dialogues like water in a clear, sparkling brook. Characters are also lovingly shaded; Calpurnia is feisty, quirky, and smart without any of the clichés associated with female characters of this type. Despite growing up with six brothers, she boxes no ears, clambers up no trees, stomps no feet. She’s still uniquely who she is without buying into what conventions, or her parents (and her mother) dictate to her about how a girl “should” be.

Kelly also does a great job of presenting all the characters as full-blooded people without sacrificing their messy or sometimes awkward humanity and individual idiosyncrasies. There’s Calpurnia’s incredibly sweet relationship with her eldest brother, Harry, who calls her “my own pet” without making it sound or seem cloying. There’s Calpurnia and her relations to her other brothers – feisty yet peaceable relations – that seems believable to those of us who come from large families.

Then there’s her grandfather, who by virtue of being a patriarch who built up his cotton gins from scratch (and which his son, Calpurnia’s father, has inherited – thus inscribing Calpurnia’s upper-class status in Texas society in stone), is allowed to tinker away in his laboratory carrying out scientific experiments (he’s been trying to distil pecans into liquor) and taking long walks out to the river for his nature observations. In her grandfather, Calpurnia finally sees another way of being – and in Kelly’s hands, it’s not some Great Feminist Feat that a girl is able to envision a life that’s different from what’s expected of her, while her brothers blithely continue to carry on as normal – it just is. No doubt, Calpurnia’s talent for observation and her incessant curiosity makes her question the very things that others consider normal.

Through her first tasting of Coca-Cola, or her first sighting of a new species of vetch with her grandfather, or her attempts at making pie dough, or being gifted something horrible by her parents for Christmas, Calpurnia never loses sight of trying to stay true to herself, even if she learns that it sometimes means having to put on a brave face for the benefit of your loved ones. It’s an incredibly uplifting story that made me miss the girl I was at 11 – chubby and nerdy, no doubt, but also someone who adored dinosaurs, Egyptian and Greek mythology, astronomy, and puzzles/codes –and that’s probably why the book resonated as much as it did. I remember going through a stage of being a ‘naturalist’ as well (short-lived, as my drawing skills were limited at best, and plain goddamn awful at worst) when I went around trying to “sketch” the plants or stones that I saw. I’m sure that I was inspired by a book I read at the time, although I can’t remember which one.

The ending is perfect – it neither resolves nor simplifies anything, but simply leaves the reader with the possibility of hope. One can only hope that Calpurnia Tate goes as far as her mind can take her, especially as she enters the 20th century – a brand new world of telephones, automobiles, and lady scientists.


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