The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly
In the sweltering summer of 1899 in Fentress, Tex., 11-year-old Calpurnia Virginia (“Callie Vee”) Tate, who is “spliced midway” between three older brothers and three younger brothers, figures out that she can attract earthworms from deep within the parched earth if she dumps a bucket of water in the same spot twice a day for five days. She sells a dozen of these earthworms to her 13-year-old brother Lamar for a penny, and confesses her “method” to her oldest brother, Harry (age 17), her favorite. Harry encourages Callie Vee by giving her a pocket-size red leather notebook for recording her scientific observations. “You’re a regular naturalist in the making,” he tells her. Repulsed by cooking and knitting and other traditional female pursuits, Callie Vee thrives by the river bank, observing flora and fauna. But it is the turn of the 20th century, after all, and the heroine meets with obstacles to her instinctive curiosity about the natural world.
Callie Vee’s observations about two “very different kinds of grasshoppers” lead her to approach her reclusive Grandfather, an “old man [with] fierce tufty eyebrows,… rather like a dragon’s.” When she poses the grasshopper question to her Grandfather, he is not very helpful initially (“I suspect that a smart young whip like you can figure it out,” he tells her). Undeterred, she hitches a ride with Harry into town and goes in search of a book she’d heard her minister and Grandfather discussing, The Origin of the Species (and what the “unearthing [of dinosaurs] in Colorado… meant to the Book of Genesis”). Though her trip is unsuccessful, Callie Vee figures out the answer through further study, shares her solution with her Grandfather, and a tenuous connection forms between them. The strengthening of their bond forms the heart of this humorous, often poignant book. For Grandfather cares not that Callie Vee was born a girl; he sees her as a companion in a world full of astonishing curiosities. Through Callie Vee’s eyes, the author deftly explores attitudes toward science and gender roles at the turn of the 20th century. She invites readers to examine the world more closely, for both its natural beauty, and for the limits we humans place upon it and each other.