© Jacqueline Kelly, cover illustration by Beth White.
I picked this up at a used book sale partly on the strength of the great cover art, partly because it’s a Newbery Honor Book, usually a sign of a good read. The heroine, Calpurnia Tate, is eleven years old, living in a small town in 1899 Texas, and from a well-to-do but not rich family, her father owns a large farm. Calpurnia is a tomboy, more interested in science than sewing or cooking, which is a trial for her mother, as she’s the only daughter among seven children. The title refers not only to her personal evolution but also her discovery of real scientific ideas in Charles Darwin’s classic book “The Origin of Species,” lent to her by her granddaddy, who shares Calpurnia’s interest in such things. In fact, the two strike up a sudden friendship and bond after hardly talking to each other previously, and begin spending lots of time together either out in the woods and fields collecting insect and plant specimens or in her grandaddy’s “laboratory,” a shed back of the house where he conducts research and experiments.
This new line of activity does not go over well with Calpurnia’s family and friends. They all find her interests strange and inappropriate for a girl. No one understands her desire to avoid the life laid out for her: finding a husband and raising a family. Instead she dreams of going to a university and becoming a career woman, a goal that seems far out of reach. Meanwhile, Callie gets along as best she can with her siblings, parents and friends, having adventures in a small town way, and enjoying time with her grandaddy whenever possible. On one of their collecting expeditions, they find and bring home a plant that Grandaddy believes might be a new species. They send it off to The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC and then spend many long days waiting for a reply. Callie’s mother keeps trying to get her to buckle down and learn to be a young lady, and perhaps that’s all the future will hold for her, unless she can somehow prove to them she can be more.
Well written, a nice picture of a life and time I knew nothing about, and Callie reminds me a bit of both Jo from “Little Women” and Anne of Green Gables: feisty yet sensitive, smart and funny at times, awkward and temperamental at others. I think many young girls would enjoy this book as much as I did, probably more. If you’re a nature lover you’ll like that aspect as well.