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Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, written by Jacqueline Kelly. Henry Holt, HB Fenn, 2009. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"We resumed our walk to the riverbank and found shade under a hospitable tree in the pecan bottom. Then he told me some stupefying things. He told me about the ways in which you get to the truth of any matter, not merely sitting around thinking about it like Aristotle (a smart but confused Grecian gentleman) but going out and looking with your own eyes; about making your Hypothesis and devising your Experiment, and testing by Observation, and coming to a Conclusion. And then testing the strength of your Conclusion, over and over. "

And the list of things that Grandfather teaches Callie Vee goes on and on.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is 11 years old and the only girl among seven siblings. She is right in the middle and there are many expectations of a young girl in Texas in 1899 that don't include scientific inquiry. Her mother has much higher hopes for her only daughter than to have her spending endless hours with her somewhat eccentric grandfather searching for specimens and testing hypotheses. She wants her to cook, and sew, and do all those things that genteel young women should be doing.

This is a wonderfully written book of historical fiction for all ages, but particularly for those in early adolescence. Callie is an incredibly capable and intelligent young girl who longs to do more with her life that is expected of her. She has a steadfast curiosity about the natural world and a grandfather who shares her enthusiasm and is willing to help her learn.

Every chapter starts with an epigraph from Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species, a forbidden book of the time and one which Grandfather has concealed but which he shares with his beloved granddaughter. They pore over it together and that study helps Calpurnia realize that life could be different for her...there is much that she can accomplish on her own. As we catch glimpses of life in late nineteenth century Texas and enjoy the relationships and antics of family members, we root for Callie and her future.

Knowing that this is a debut novel only makes it more impressive. The writing is taut and charming. The characters are convincing and memorable. Grandfather is aloof, yet so supportive of Callie and her abilities. He is a mentor we all would love to have in our lives. As I remind people often, this is a book written with a young audience in mind; but it is not only for children. Many adults will find the story appealing, the writing admirable and the characters unforgettable. You don't have to be a historical fiction buff to find this book worth a few hours of your time. You will not regret picking it up and you might have a really tough time putting it down until you have read every fine word.

"I continued to hover over the Plant with Granddaddy. To my great relief, it thrived under our tender care, first stretching for the light and then trailing along the windowsill. Granddaddy called it the Proband. He told me that's what you called the first of a kind. Every day I took it outside for a few minutes to expose it to the bees for pollination. I was vigilant in my duties and shooed away all grasshoppers and other plant eaters that dared to venture too close."

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