Life Science and Self-Discovery in “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate”

Jacqueline Kelly’s historical middle grade novel follows a young protagonist who discovers her love of science, but there is little struggle or story to be found.

The 10-year old Calpurnia Tate discovers her love of biology and taxonomy in 1899, in Jacqueline Kelly’s historical middle-grade novel. I made this illustration, credits for the things I used are here.

On a rare and precious trip to the library, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate‘s determined and curious 10-year-old heroine is in search of a tightly-guarded treasure. In between tedious needlework lessons and the looming threat of housewifery, Calpurnia, in spite of the dictates of turn-of-the-century Texas, has developed a sapling of scientific inquiry, and she hopes against hope that she can get her hands on Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.

The librarian, however, objects profoundly. The doors of opportunity are shrieking closed. In a moment that will set the tone for the rest of the novel, Jacqueline Kelly has used the opening chapter to remind us where we are.

Many more incidents like this are peppered through Kelly’s middle grade novel, among the many incidents that frame and define the brief, pivotal period of Calpurnia’s childhood that The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate covers. It’s not one continuous story––more episodic and memory based, Little Women-style. This approach certainly has its benefits: for one thing, it helps prevent the book from essentializing the misogyny of Calpurnia’s time, the way historicals strictly adhering to Freytag’s pyramid have a tendency to include whatever bias it addresses as one of the characters’ personal struggles, and show it heartily defeated in the end. The obstacles that stand in between a young girl and science in 1899 are very much still in place come the last page, and not magically vanquished by the power of story.

One thing Little Women‘s vignette style has on The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate‘s, however, is a more robust set of through-lines. Things are resolved rather tidily chapter-by-chapter in both books, but vignettes need to be tied together with resilient twine: a blend of character development, recurring themes, and an ambitious grasp at meaning. Evolution‘s through-lines, namely her interest in science, her relationships with her family, and the historical moment’s hope for the future, aren’t strong enough for the novel to progress cohesively. Instead, the reading experience is disjointed: dry, even––inching into the territory of a spotty adult memoir. The book has an adventurous, hopeful spirit, but in execution, its momentum often dries up. It’s barred from demonstrating competence in pacing, because, by virtue of Kelly’s stylistic choices, it isn’t paced.

Science and the pursuit of knowledge in a somewhat hostile age is the book’s most promising hint of consistency, but Calpurnia’s interest in biology, cultivated by a close bond with her grandfather, is more a consistent thrum than a relationship with true development, and what’s more, conflict. Kelly’s depiction of scientific observation is in itself authentic: we see Calpurnia reckon with a natural world that doesn’t reveal all its secrets to the casual viewer, angst over lost specimens and missed opportunities abounding. But science, for whatever reason (including perfectly legitimate ones like the fact of the protagonist’s age), lacks a big-picture meaning in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Wonder, in its purest and most powerful form, is severely lacking in the novel, and so is pronounced struggle. In an age of scant science graduates and struggling math students, it may be very worth it to see a young protagonist go up against cloudy and difficult ideas, the specter of being wrong, and more related woes, and triumph. (Or fail, but gain by it.) Calpurnia mentions in passing the difficulty of getting through Darwin’s writing, but beyond that, science is easy for her, and only external factors bar her from the field: nothing she has to confront in her own thinking. As absent is the contest, so muted is the reward.

Another shortcoming in Kelly’s narrative of science reveals itself in a sustained focus on those very external factors, so much so that the heart of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is intent on defining itself primarily in opposition to what it’s not. The book is more concerned with how little Calpurnia wants to be a housewife than it is with how much she wants to be a scientist. Kelly’s glimpses of the heartbreak of being excluded is powerful, indeed––it may even be the strongest element in the book. But a historical must not merely be concerned with the tragedy of its circumstances, especially when it also happens to be careless about whom it leaves out.

The Tates’ servant, a black woman named Viola, is very much on the periphery of Kelly’s attention. There are reasons for this: why would a ten-year-old notice the hardships of her family’s maid? It hurts the novel’s case, though, when Viola’s status is presented without objection, and only the backwards ideas that target a white girl are found to have fault. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate holds a powerful image of how it feels to be shut out, but when it only speaks of betterment for the main character, its case falls apart. There is a glaring example of another person forgotten right beside her.

On some level, as well, the book seems more interested in charming adult readers than connecting with younger ones. For a main character who loudly proclaims to have no interest in romance, Calpurnia’s narrative is rather fond of putting it her path, drawing out cutesy exchanges like this:

“You have to let your husband kiss you once you’re married. And you have to kiss him back.”

“No,” she said.

“Yes.” I nodded, as if I knew everything there was to know about husbands and wives kissing. “That’s what they do together.”

“Do you have to?”

“Oh, absolutely. It’s the law.”

“I never heard of that law,” she said dubiously.

“It’s true, it’s Texas law.”

The vignette style, ultimately, is more suited to seeing childhood through rose-tinted glasses, than it is to contending with it in real time. In this case, though, the same also goes for history.

Hello, and thank you for reading! I post new reviews & musings every Tuesday and Thursday. Let’s have a chat in the comments! What are your thoughts? Do childrens’ books need to do more to depict learning? Is this an irrelevant nitpick of mine? Tell me below.

Author: Pippin Hart

Pippin Hart read Jane Eyre when she was sixteen, and will spend the rest of her life chasing the high.

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