The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateThere aren’t many advantages to being home for going on, what… seventeen months or so now? Considering all the extra time it seems we have, the kitchen and restrooms are dirtier than ever, my ‘To Do’ list is out of control, and I’m actually exercising LESS than I did when I was “busy.” 

On the other hand, I’ve watched some fascinating documentaries (those things formatted like Tiger King, but with better-dressed subject matter) which I’d probably never have gotten around to otherwise. I’ve organized random sections of the basement and made sure my entire music collection has accurate album covers in Media Player.  Somewhat less tragically, I’m also finally catching up on some reading I’ve been meaning to do since, well… sometime during the Obama Administration. (He was that quirky one that used full sentences and stuff.)

Each summer, I solicit suggestions from real live middle school teachers of books to use in social studies classes. I post them on Blue Cereal as a reference for other educators, and over the years it’s become one of the more visited sections of the site. I’m a huge fan of reading across the content areas, although I try not to call it that because it sounds too much like the name of an expensive curriculum being pushed on desperate districts, like “Literacy First!” or “Pre-AP.” I even try to actually read the books before I add them to the list. Given that most of them are written with 12-year olds in mind, you’d think I’d do a better job keeping up.

Several of the titles I’ve enjoyed during Duck-and-Covid have been wonderful surprises. By far my favorite, however, is The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jaqueline Kelly. I’d never heard of this book, although I’ve since learned it received something shiny from the Newbury folks and has several sequels – so clearly I’m behind the curve a bit here.  It was suggested to me by a 7th Grade Texas History teacher, but its value goes well beyond that.

Hence this gushing post.

Calpurnia is an 11-year old girl surrounded by brothers, living in what we’d today consider an upper-middle class family in southern Texas. It’s 1899 and a new century is looming. This was a rich time period for several of the historical and cultural themes sneaking around in the text and an appropriate metaphor for the ways in which the times, they were a-changing, for Calpurnia as well as the world around her.

As it turns out, Calpurnia is not especially good at many of the things expected of young ladies of her standing but quite adept at observing and scientifically questioning the world around her. She’s also just rebellious enough to stay interesting:

I asked Mother if I could cut off my hair, which hung in a dense swelter all the way down my back. She said no, she wouldn’t have me running about like as shorn savage. I found this manifestly unfair, to say nothing of hot. So I devised a plan: Every week I would cut off an inch of hair – just one stealthy inch – so that Mother wouldn’t notice. She wouldn’t notice because I would camouflage myself with good manners. When I took on the disguise of a polite young lady, I could often escape her closer scrutiny… Plus, the heat aggravated her crippling sick headaches, and she had to resort to a big spoonful of Lydia Pickham’s Vegetable Compound, known to be the Best Blood Purifier for Women.

That night I took a pair of embroidery scissors and, with great exhilaration and a pounding heart, cut off the first inch… I was striding forth to greet my future in the shiny New Century, a few short months away. It seemed to me a great moment indeed.

I slept poorly that night in fear of the morning.

Calpurnia manages to utilize an impressive vocabulary while remaining entirely believable and her tale perfectly readable. Challenges to gender roles and, to a lesser extent, racial dynamics, unfold naturally. The issues  are inherent to her story but never seem forced or preachy – a tricky balance these days. We quickly begin to genuinely care about Calpurnia and root for her at every stage, even when she’s being childish.

Of course, she’s actually a child. So there’s that.

Calpurnia could use our support as she a begins to pay attention to the world in ways most people around her – especially girls – do not.

What exactly was a naturalist? I wasn’t sure, but I decided to spend the rest of my summer being one. If all it meant was writing about what you saw around you, I could do that. Besides, now that I had my own place to write things down, I saw things I’d never noticed before.

My first recorded notes were of the dogs. Due to the heat, they lay so still in the dirt as to look dead. Even when my younger brothers chivvied them with sticks out of boredom, they wouldn’t bother to raise their heads. They got up long enough to slurp at the water trough and then flopped down again, raising puffs of dust in their shallow hollows. You couldn’t have rousted Ajax, Father’s prize bird dog… He lay with his mouth lolling open and let me count his teeth. In this way, I discovered that the roof of a dog’s mouth is deeply ridged in a backwards direction down his gullet, in order no doubt to encourage the passage of struggling prey in one direction only, namely that of DINNER. I wrote this in my Notebook.

I observed that the expressions of a dog’s face are mainly manifested by the movement of its eyebrows. I wrote, Why do dogs have eyebrows? Why do dogs need eyebrows?

Calpurnia’s powers of observation are encouraged by a developing relationship with her quirky grandfather despite the frustrated bewilderment of the rest of her family. Although we learn about the scientific method and related realities as the book progresses, the educational elements never take over the story or leave the reader feeling tricked into watching PBS. It’s not historical fiction in the sense of being packed with content, but the tale is so comfortably grounded in the times that I’m 100% confident recommending it for any American or Texas History class. It has enough literary value to work in ELA as well, possibly up through 9th or 10th grade, depending on your readers.

Note the way the author plays with perception and description in this scene, when Calpurnia’s favorite older brother is first showing interest in a female outsider:

Harry dashed out the front door to hand down two women from the buggy, one stout and one slender. He offered his arm to the slender one – the harpy – and they moved up the walk, their heads together, sharing some word, some laugh, some something that none of the rest of us would ever share. My parents met them at the door, and I could overhear the bright chatter of introductions before Mother led everyone into the parlor. I have to give my mother credit, she appeared more relaxed and cheerful than I would have expected under the circumstances. Maybe she’d taken some tonic.

And there She was: taller than I expected, and slender, and dressed in a fuzzy peach dress with too many jet buttons. There was the petulant mouth, the long neck, the buggy eyes, the massy hair. She carried a spangled peach-colored fan that she opened with a theatrical fwop as she met the other guests…

The peach fan beat the air like a giant moth. She looked at me with her big, buggy eyes and said with a trilling laugh, “Why, Calpurnia, what a sweet little girl you are…” And with this, she furled her fan and tapped me playfully on the check with it, a mite too hard. Was I in for such punishment all night long?

What I’d really like to see, however, is what could be done with Calpurnia Tate in a science class. Any science class. If any of you lab-coated types out there are being pushed to “read across the curriculum,” may I respectfully suggest you request a class set or seven of these. I’m sure there are English teachers nearby who’d love to share their strategies for using novels in class, and your administration will find you quite the go-getter.

My hope, of course, is that in addition to promoting reading in general, Calpurnia could enrich your class as well – sparking a few discussions and helping to strengthen the idea that science isn’t something other people do instead of real life, but an essential part of real life itself. Calpurnia’s Grandfather would agree with me:

“What can you tell me about the Scientific Method, Calpurnia?” The way he said those words, I knew they had capital letters.

“Um, not much.”

“’What are you studying in school? You do go to school, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. We’re studying Reading, Spelling, Arithmetic, and Penmanship. Oh, and Deportment. I got an ‘acceptable’ for Posture but an ‘unsatisfactory’ for Use of Hankie and Thimble. Mother was kind of unhappy about that.”

“Good God,” he said. “It’s worse than I thought.”

This was an intriguing statement, although I didn’t understand it…

“And I suppose they teach you that the world is flat and that there are dragons gobbling up the ships that fall over the edge.” He peered at me. “There are many things to talk about. I hope it’s not too late.”

Nothing about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tateis political or forced or inappropriate for little people. It is nevertheless timely, reminding us of the power of asking good questions and wrestling with them rather than simply accepting answers from others for sake of convenience.

It’s also a rather inspiring reminder, intentionally or not, that few things are more empowering than being loved and accepted by others, even when they have no idea what we’re talking about or why we do what we do.

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