The lone girl sandwiched between six brothers, Calpurnia Virginia Tate—Callie Vee—is more comfortable romping the woods and swimming in the stream than knitting or sewing in the parlor. When a drought gets Callie wondering about grasshoppers—most summers she only sees one kind of grasshoppers, this time she’s seeing two—she faces her fear and talks to her grandfather, a rather forbidding amateur naturalist who generally ignores the children in favor of experiments in his laboratory. On finding a kindred spirit in Callie he makes an exception to his child-ignoring rule and teaches her about science, nature, and the distillation of liquor. (She finds that whiskey may cause coughing.)
It’s also the summer when it starts to sink in how differently boys and girls are treated in 1899, how few options she has, and how little she likes those options. The realization sits heavy on her, to say the least, and on her grandfather, too; he teaches her about Marie Curie and other lady scientists, but he knows that he’s making it harder for her to settle for the life her mother wants for her and the world expects of her, and that rejecting that life would take her down a very difficult path.
Callie is an appealing, energetic narrator, applying her wit and newly-trained skills of observation to the natural world and, with less consistent success, to her family. She is a product of her times and of her grandfather; her take on gender roles does not spring up fully-formed simple because she is the heroine of a modern volume of historical fiction and we expect our heroines to be sympathetic from a modern point of view, but rather we see it developing naturally through the conflicting influences of grandfather, brothers, best friend, mother, cook, and the telephone company. Memories of the Civil War frequently remind us how much Callie is the product of her time and place; with her friends and brothers, she maintains a reverence for Confederate soldiers, and no one likes the Federals.
It’s a slice-of-life book, covering the six months surrounding Callie’s twelfth birthday. It’s a pivotal six months of her life, and the book is a consistently interesting and enjoyable read, but as is so often the case with such books, the ending is abrupt and irresolute. We’re left with the hope that Callie will grow up from an unusual girl to an unusual woman, but with a lingering melancholy and a view of the obstacles that stand in her way.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate ~ Jacqueline Kelly