I read several reviews of this debut novel set in 1899 in Caldwell County, Texas, before I actually read the book itself, and I remember all of the reviews being quite positive. That’s sort of a dangerous thing to do because my expectations can be raised too high—which is exactly what I think happened with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Maybe if I had discovered it serendipitously, I would have liked it better.
As it was, the book felt preachy to me and sort of generationally snobbish, if I can use that term. We are soooooo enlightened nowadays, whereas back in 1899 girls could only become housewives and no one believed in Darwinian evolution. I know there was a time, not so long ago, when well-bred young ladies didn’t study science, at least not in depth, and when nobody who wasn’t heathen read Darwin. But in this novel, I felt as if the messages that “girls can become anything they want” and that “science is vitally important” got in the way of the story. I wanted to understand Grandfather, Calpurnia’s mentor in scientific studies, better and see what motivated him. I wanted a little more humor in the story. I don’t know what I wanted, exactly, but I do think mostly I just expected too much. And dare I use the B-word? Some parts of the book just dragged with very little action and a whole lot of exposition.
The setting itself was just right, though. Ms. Kelly begins the novel by describing the Texas heat, and she even gives a few methods for beating the heat back in 1899. My father-in-law, who was a boy back in the early 1900’s in West Texas, said that they used to haul their bedding outside and sleep out under the shade trees. Of course, if a rain storm came up, everyone had to high-tail it back inside. Calpurnia’s observations as an amateur naturalist are sprinkled throughout the book, and these passages are some of the most fascinating reading in the book.
If only The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate could have soft-pedaled the evolutionist and feminist preaching a bit, I think it would have come closer to being a favorite for me.
Other Bloggers’ Opinions:
Melissa at Book Nut: “I also liked the way Kelly evoked a particular feel; the sense of anticipation, of change that must have accompanied the time period was quite palpable in the book. It’s a historical novel that actually felt like it. Callie was modern, sure, but she was struggling with her modernity against all the traditional values that were around her, and that dichotomy was intriguing.”
Welcome to My Tweendom: “Jacqueline Kelly has written a piece of historical fiction with depth, detail and characters that leap off the page. From the first telephone coming to town, to Callie’s grandfather’s first time sitting in an automobile, to the kerosene powered ‘wind machine’, readers will find themselves immersed in the sweeping changes that were happening at the dawn of the 20th century.”
The Reading Zone: “It’s historical fiction that kids will actually enjoy! There are great little tidbits about the turn of the century- kids will love the idea that Coke was invented and wasn’t always around.”
Never Jam Today: “I loved the Tate family. I loved watching the interplay between seven siblings–you don’t get that very often. I loved the generation-spanning relationship between Callie and her grandfather. These things breathed.”
I told you most everyone else loved it. Use my review to lower your own expectations, and then form your own opinion. (I really hope this one doesn’t win the Newbery.)
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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.