Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

I wanted to read this book from the moment I saw it on the shelves of the bookstore I worked at. With it's yellow cover and enticing black design, its promise of a tale about a non-corforming young girl at the turn of the (last) century, it had so many things to entice me. But like an idiot, I waited too long to buy it, then I spent a year overseas, and when I came back I couldn't find it at the bookstore. Fortunately, I read that the paperback was coming in January and as soon as it did, I grabbed a copy. I was not dissapointed.

It is the summer of 1899 in the American south, and it is the summer that will change everything. Eleven years old Calpurnia Tate is the only girl in a family of six brothers, and generally left to her own device. When she observes, one bright day, that some grasshoppers are green and some yellow, she becomes intrigue and goes to her grandfather, a man that the siblings all generally avoid due to his sullenness and general lack of interest for anything outside of his studies of nature, and finds herself a young naturalist in the making. Calpurnia takes pleasure in spending her days observing the natural world around her and spending time with her grandfather, who seems more than willing now to share his knowledge with her. But it is also time, thinks her mother, for her to learn how to become a proper lady, a girl who, in a few years, will be introduce to society as a debutante. A girl who will marry and become a good wife. But Calpurnia doubts this is what she wants, even if she knows this is what is expected, this is what, more likely than not, will happen. What then of her dreams that she just only discovered she had?

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a wonderful book. Calpurnia is a spunky and curious and bright young heroine. Because her grandfather never treats her differently due to her gender, she has the chance to indulge in her curiosity, to grow as herself. The book is not only an exploration of the evolution of a young girl at the turn of the century, it is also a portrait of family life and expectations. It would be easy to think of Calpurnia's mother as a villain who doesn't care about her daughter's desires, but instead the family situations and the expectations of the time are carefully laid out and understood by Calpurnia even if she wants to rebel against them. There is strong love in the family. There are several comical, touching, heart-warming moments in this book, and each characters from the parents to the six brothers to the town photograph come easily to life. They feel real and it is easy to get attached to them.

This book, even in its simplicity, really touched me. There was something in the plight of Calpurnia, in her keen-observant mind and quick tongue, in the love she has for her family and friends, in the friendship she has with her grandfather, and in her slow desperation at seeing herself trapped into roles she doesn't think she might be able to escape, that rang true to me. Maybe it's something that girls and women can understand, even if in this day in age we are less restricted than in 1899. There is this knowledge that it wasn't always so, that there are thousands of girls and women before us who didn't have this chance, just because they were of a different gender. And I found myself rooting for this girl, this strong little girl, that she might be one of the few to be able to elevate herself above these restrictions. There is something absolutely satisfying to me from reading stories like that, and Jacqueline Kelly painted an enticing portrait of a girl, a place and a time that resonated in me long after I turned the last page.


  1. I've had this on my Shelfari bookshelf for a long time but still haven't gotten around to read it. Mostly because I wasn't sure if it would be worth it but after reading your review it seems that it is so I shall get to it as soon as I can.

  2. Yes, yes, I could empathize with her despite the difference in our situations. There's this inner female feeling I could not name.