Books, Reviews

Of Naturalists in the Making, circa 1899, and Everytime

E is for ‘The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate” – by Jacqueline Kelly. I have always loved books which had a spunky heroine and this one is no different. The book starts off slow, does not really have a great big plot as such, and ends with an ending where the reader is left thinking – ‘really? what happens to her now?’. In spite of this, and because of these, as well as a few more things I will mention soon, this book endears you to it, and I always consider the end where the reader wonders and wants to know what next as having read a good book.

Calpurnia, or Callie Vee, as everyone calls her, is my kind of girl heroine. I can picture a younger version of myself doing at least some of what Callie does, and wanting to be treated no different than the boys (though I am lucky to have parents who treated me and my brother just the same!)

This story tells of her trying to fit in the 1899 world where girls are expected to learn the ‘Science of Housewifery’ rather than any other sciences. She would rather explore the world around her – the insects, the plants, the birds and animals, well, you get it, right!? and the really hot summer of 1899 meant freedom for her – while everyone else napped, she slipped out to do what she loved most – explore and observe. Her favorite and oldest brother, Harry, starts her off on her journey as a naturalist when he gives her a red leather note book and asks her to use it to record her observations, calling her ‘a regular naturalist in the making‘! I loved that her brother recognized that in her. She then says that now that she had a place to write things down, she began to see things she had never seen before 🙂 Her questions about why some grasshoppers were yellow are left unanswered when she polls her all of her family, except her granddaddy, whom everyone normally avoids. But when she finally turns to her curmudgeonly grandfather, to her delight, she discovers a mentor in him.  He is a war-veteran, a retired businessman, a self-professed naturalist, and a experimental pecan-whiskey brewer. He has corresponded with the likes of Charles Darwin and Alexander Graham Bell! He sees in Callie, a kindred spirit, and takes it upon himself to teach her all she wants to learn about nature and that she cannot learn at school (and she, and I discovered and learned many things as the book progresses – I definitely found out about Isabella Bird, Mary Anning, Sofia Kovalevskaya among other women scientists I had not known of before, discovered more of the natural world, had to check who or what was the esquimax, and so much more).

In addition to enjoying her spunk and her persistence in learning what she loves, her attempts at all that her mother expects her to excel at are what make her Callie Vee. I am glad her mom is not made out to be a villain but merely doing something expected of her for her only daughter (and she takes Lydia Pinkham’s tonics (read ‘alcohol’!) for her frequent headaches). Callie gamely tats, sews, knits socks for her brothers, cooks apple pie tarts, learns deportment, and plays Chopin on the piano (while she would rather play Scott Joplin!). Her relationship with her brothers is totally endearing – I especially loved the depictions of the relationships between her and her oldest brother Harry as well as her youngest brother, J.B. (Oh, that scene, when he hugs her to make her feel better, because he just knows that she is not feeling too good made my eyes shimmer). She has her faults too, for example, how she reacts/acts when her favorite older brother seriously starts pursuing a girl he likes. The questions and observations she records in her notebook are a wonderful inspiration and an inside look into the working of a young naturalist in the making. For example, how can the possum in her wall tell time exactly (he always finishes his nocturnal walks and climbs up the wall at five am everyday) while her younger brother J.B. was still struggling with the concept of time? Or is there a word for snow in the language of the finches? And if there is not, how will they survive it?

This book is, in effect, a tender, inspiring, witty portrayal of many things — of Callie Vee – the only girl child among seven children – a naturalist in the making at a time when ambition or science were not words for girls, and also of her family, her tiny town in the middle of nowhere which celebrates its first telephone, and adds an entry for the temperature in the shade after Callie writes to the paper (because, who in their right minds would be out in the sun in that scorcher of a summer), the fairs, the ribbons to win at the fairs, fireflies, tarts, pecan-whiskey, and so much more of a bygone era. This book is a portrayal of the love within families – in this case, especially that of Callie and her grandfather, and of Callie and her brothers (and yes, of Callie and the rest of her household, and of her best friend Lula!).

And yet, this book is timeless, and waiting to inspire many a girl (and a boy, and adults too) to explore the world around them, to persist, to be curious, to keep learning, and to keep going at it.

I end with some of the many quotable quotes in this absolutely readable book!

Conversations between granddaddy and Callie -“It’s amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look.”

Conversations between granddaddy and Callie –“I don’t have that many days left,” he said as we sat together in the library. “Why would I want to spend them on matters of drainage and overdue accounts? I must husband my hours and spend every one of them wisely. I regret that I didn’t come to this realization until I reached fifty years of age. Calpurnia, you would do well to adopt such an attitude at an earlier age. Spend each of your allotted hours with care.”

Conversations between granddaddy and Callie – “I don’t understand the modern educational system at all.”
“Neither do I. We have to learn sewing and knitting and smocking. In Deportment, they make us walk around the room with a book on our heads.”
Granddaddy said, “I find that actually reading the book is a much more effective way of absorbing.”

Conversations between granddaddy and Callie – “I remember it as if it were yesterday. Matter of fact, I remember it better than I remember yesterday. Old age is a terrible thing, Calpurnia.” He looked at me and said, “Don’t let it happen to you.”
“Nosir,” I said. “I won’t.”

What she notices about their family cook Viola – “It was interesting that such a slight frame could contain so large a person.”

Of her grandpa – “We had been so close to missing each other, he and I. He had turned out to be the greatest gift of all.” 

Of being eleven year olds – “Lula,” I said, “do you ever think about getting married?”
I guess I do. Doesn’t everybody?”
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,” I said.” 

This post goes towards ABC Wednesday‘s round 22 – letter E (my theme for ABC Wednesday’s Round 22, as you might have already guessed, is children’s books – I will pick one popular (and sometimes the not so popular/the unknown) book – classic/modern/old/new… – and write about it – be it a backstory or facts or something else completely).

7 thoughts on “Of Naturalists in the Making, circa 1899, and Everytime

  1. Sounds interesting! I especially liked the conversations between grandfather and granddaughter. But I don’t like ambiguity at the end, so I confess I am not likely to read it. So I’m extra glad to have heard a bit about it here. 🙂

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