Coming-of-age will never get old. Well, sometimes it seems like this type of story shows it’s age when another heavy-handed, contrived, or otherwise inauthentic attempt hits shelves. The fact that the coming-of-age tale is possibly the most common in all of children’s/YA lit, means that only a truly impressive work will stand out – The Evolution of Calpernia Tate is this sort of book. Vivid description, memorable characters, humor, and history all channeled through the crystal clear voice of a girl who is just beginning to learn what the future holds. An impressively confident and satisfying first novel by Jacqueline Kelly.
The setting is as complete and vibrant as you could ask for. A pecan farm in the small Texas town of Fentress on the cusp of the 20th century. Indeed this threshold in time lays the foundation for the overarching theme of the book – the role of women (and, specifically, our heroine) as progress continues it’s relentless march.
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is squarely in the middle of a large, chaotic family. With six brothers (three older and three younger) Callie Vee is an island, the lone girl. When her questions about the natural world lead to a relationship with her grandfather, it appears that through science, Calpernia has found her place in the world. The two even find what they believe to be a new species of plant. This perfect union soon becomes strained, however, as Callie’s mother, nonplussed with her daughter’s naturalist tendencies, sets her mind to teaching the youngster the more feminine skills of the day: cooking and sewing. Calpurnia struggles with what lies ahead, as her love of scientific endeavors conflicts with what is expected of her.
It’s almost worth the price of admission just to witness the authentic voice of Calpurnia. Her interactions and thoughts are always believable, full of wit, and give the reader a glimpse of what life is like for an 11 year old girl who often disagrees with the customs and conventions of this period of history.
There were a couple plot points that I wish had been dealt with more thoroughly. The abrupt departure of Harry’s (Calpurnia’s oldest brother) love interest after a private conversation with Grandpa, and the mysterious trading of the Thanksgiving turkeys fall into this category.
I’ve heard many people mention Richard Peck when discussing this book, and in terms of mood and approach, that comparison is entirely appropriate. The humor (which often arises from the clash of “proper society etiquette” and, well, the opposite) will surely invoke Peck’s most acclaimed works, A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way From Chicago.
All things considered, you’ll be hard pressed to find a warmer, more charming title this year. Sure to be among the best of ’09.
Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.