Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

pic courtesy flipkart

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Written by Jacqueline Kelly
Published by Square Fish, an imprint of MacMillan
Ages 10+

It is the summer of 1899. The only girl in a family of seven siblings, Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee, as she is called) is expected to apply herself to the task of crafting a lady out of herself. Her mother's sole dream for her only daughter is that she be tutored in the arts befitting a lady- music, drawing, dance, embroidery, cooking- so that she would make a stunning debut on their social circuit and land the most eligible bachelor before she becomes 'an old maid of twenty.'

There is a slight hitch in the plan, though. Callie Vee has not the slightest inclination towards these achievements, and is encouraged by her naturalist grandfather in her scientific forages. The only grandchild that matches his interests.

"The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why...the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather..." 

The Origin of Species plays a large part in the book. Each chapter begins with a fitting epigraph quoted from Darwin's book. Callie Vee knows of the book, but it is a banned book, and she has no chance absolutely of laying her hands on it. Until her formidable, cantankerous grandfather discovers her interest in, and keen observations of the strange case of large yellow and small green grasshoppers- that she dutifully notes down in her 'observations notebook.'

"He stared at me for a moment with an odd expression on his face- perhaps surprise, perhaps consternation- as if I were a species he'd never seen before...He extracted a book covered in rich green morocco leather handsomely tipped with gold. Ceremoniously, he bowed and offered it to me. I looked at it. The Origin of Species. Here, in my own house. I received it in both my hands. He smiled. Thus began my relationship with Granddaddy."

It was a beginning of a wondrous journey of scientific discovery. The beginning of a dream that showed her the path out of a possible life of drudgery like countless other girls like her. A life that she could not visualise herself enjoying, no matter what her parents and society at large expected of her. The beginning of an old man's dream of at least one among his heirs carrying the light of his discoveries into the future.

This refreshing debut book by the author, Jacqueline Kelly, was devoured and thoroughly enjoyed by the resident 11 year old, who has to often be-labour under expectations from her peers, and sometimes from elders, to conform to stereotyping by her gender. Be that in clothes, interests, behaviour, dreams or priviledge. She applauded with Granddaddy, when Callie Vee ensured that she is paid for her work during the harvest season, not just the boys, and when she stressed on her right to make a choice about her life.

My daughter A loved the book, and has been recommending it to all her friends. It makes a lot of sense to her since she has been doing evolution and taxonomy at school this year. She also identifies with Callie Vee on a more basic level - she has often been the butt of jokes among her peers for being different - more science and literature minded than the average 11 year old girl, not so interested in what is considered 'cool behaviour.'

Cross-posted here and here.

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