“Calpurnia Tate”: a girl comes of age in Texas

The state of Texas has one of the largest school systems in the country. Textbooks there are a big deal, because national publishers often oblige the state’s “born again” politics and pseudoscience in the interest of big sales. A textbook approval by Texas opens markets in many other states. It’s always news when creationism and Darwinism duke it out (yet again) to see which worldview will be transmitted to public school students this year.

There’s just about no one alive today with an active memory of the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, which raised that very question: Can we teach modern science to our children? Yet that case is seared into American history as the archetype of the great debate between obscurantism and rationality. Evidence surfaces almost every day that those battles are still being fought all across the land.

Switch to a generation before the Scopes trial, just at the turn of the 20th century, when a girl is growing up on a Texas cotton and pecan farm about 50 miles south of the state capital at Austin. Jacqueline Kelly’s engrossing young adult novel, with 338 pages that seemingly turn themselves, is a coming of age tale with vast relevance for today’s readers. Although the genre prevents the introduction of fully “adult” themes, it is a satisfying excursion into time, and a strong addition to the literature for young people.

The year 1899 brought much that was new to that part of the world: the telephone, the auto-mobile [sic], commercial photography, new fashions in clothes and music. And new for Calpurnia Tate are the love-struck moonings (and mistakes) of the older adolescents around her. Kelly takes the turn of a century to emphasize the turning over of a new leaf of wisdom, awareness, and self-confidence, on the part of her 11-year-old heroine.

She is helpfully guided along by her cantankerous grandfather, a proud Civil War veteran (on the Confederate side of course) who also is a serious dabbler in the ecology of his local surroundings. If he has his faults, well, he also has his virtues. A serious commitment to Darwinian principles, not common in those parts, is one of them. Another is his humanitarian banning of the backbreaking short hoe on his property.

Calpurnia struggles with her starched, strait-laced family and their pedestrian expectations for her, the one girl among six brothers. She’d much rather be out at the pond collecting scum samples to view under Granddaddy’s microscope. As she looks through the eyepiece, “Something with many tiny hairs rowed past at high speed; something else with a lashing tail whipped by; a tumbling barbed sphere like a medieval mace rolled past; delicate, filmy ghostlike shadows flitted in and out of the field. It was chaotic, it was wild, it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”

We won’t know what becomes of Calpurnia, but we can only imagine a life for her that busts the hell out of boring housewifery. As a confirmed “tom-boy” with a serious interest in scientific pursuit, who knows, maybe her eventual sexuality is not going to be so standard either.

Kelly introduces the reader to a wide range of local characters, starting with the household help, both African American and Mexican American, and reaching out to the other denizens of small-town Texas more than a century ago. The Civil War is still very much a living memory. An incident or two of horrific racism crops up, so this subject is not ignored, but the close relationship between the poignantly drawn resident cook Viola and the Tate family strikes me as less than fully rounded – perhaps a casualty of the grades 5-7 the book is aimed at. At one point the New Zealand-born author uses the term “flesh” as a color, a superannuated faux pas some editor should have corrected.

But these are small quibbles. If reading is mind-expanding at any and every age, young readers, especially girls, will experience a growth spurt with this thoughtful, well-crafted novel, a Newberry Honor Book and the winner of the 2010 Bank Street – Josette Frank Award.  

Book information:
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
By Jacqueline Kelly
2009, Henry Holt, paperback $7.99, eBook $5.70



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.