As a public historian in Texas, there are certain subjects that you just have to deal with on a regular basis. The Alamo. Cowboys. The frontier. I have attended conferences where it feels like every single session is pre-1900 history and mostly about the Texas Revolution. These are all fine topics for historical study, but I must admit: they bore me. It’s just all been done Too Much.
Now, try finding engaging history for kids that’s about Texas but not about the above subjects. It’s hard—really, really hard. Though we certainly have frontier-y stuff at the museum, it’s not the majority of the museum. Our earliest structure dates to 1847, after our Republic days were over. We’re really all about that shift from rural to urban that begins to happen around the turn-of-the-century. But it’s so hard to find good books that talk about this time period for children. So, I borrow from other states like Minnesota (Betsy-Tacy) and Utah (The Great Brain). And it works, but it’s not Texas. And I am a bit biased about Texas.
When I first heard about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, I was intrigued but cautious. The jacket copy reads “The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool.” I become more intrigued–something set at the turn of the century? Seriously? But will it actually be any good? There are so many pitfalls in historical fiction. So many ways in which I could be disappointed. But I had heard good things from people I trusted. It became our museum book club’s first selection (partially at my insistence, but they agreed!) So I started to read.
Folks, I am completely head over heels in love with Calpurnia. It is an almost perfect work of historical fiction. Calpurnia becomes curious about the world around her–in particular, the grasshoppers. Her curiosity takes her to the library for Origin of the Species, and the librarian refuses to give it to her. And then she realizes that right under her nose is another naturalist/scientist–her grandfather. Together, they explore the land, make observations, continue experiments with pecan liquor (this really made me giggle), and discover what just might be an unknown species of plant. In the mean time, there’s a lot of humor, a wonderful family, and great historical details. The kinds of little things that thrill me in so much of kidlit history–Calpurnia’s first experience with coca-cola, the first car seen in that tiny town, the first telephone. These are the kind of details that aren’t Big Events–like, say, The Fall of the Alamo–but are events that readers are much more likely to connect to. And possibly fall in love.
But the reason why I am still so thrilled about this book, even though I finished it over a week ago, is that it is a wonderful introduction to some of the key ideas of women’s history. Unlike some other books (that post is linked to above), this book sums up the challenges of being a woman at the turn of the century without being heavy-handed about it. There is Calpurnia’s mother–who with seven children and a large household to manage–is known to take more than a few swigs a day of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, “known to be the Best Blood Purifier for Women” and also known to be mostly alcohol. But if I had seven kids and was stuck in a small town in Central Texas during a drought. . . yep, I’d be drinking something as well. There’s Lula, Calpurnia’s best friend, who is really good at all the “womanly skills” such as sewing and cooking and such. Lula does not understand Calpurnia’s interest in bugs and such–and only slightly understands why three of Calpurnia’s brothers always want to walk her home (another giggle scene).
But most of all, there’s Calpurnia. She realizes she wants to be a scientist. She very timidly begins to express this idea to some, but not all. Meanwhile, her mother is upping the lessons on sewing and knitting and cooking, which frustrates Calpurnia to no end. But she does it, because she knows she has to, even as she begs to spend more time with her Grandfather. She thinks, rather hopes, that her parents understand. At Christmas, she writes:
I peeled back the stiff paper to reveal the word Science printed in curlicues.
“Oh,” I exclaimed. Such magnificence! But even better than the solid reality of the book in my hand was the gladsome fact that my mother and father at last understood the kind of nourishment I needed to survive. I beamed at my parents with excitement. They smiled and nodded. I ripped the paper off to reveal the whole title: The Science of Housewifery.
“Oh!” I stared in befuddlement. It made no sense to me. What could it mean? Was the writing even English? The Science of Housewifery, by Mrs. Josiah Jarvis. This couldn’t be right. My hands turned to wood. . .
Conversation trailed off, and the room became silent except for the monotonous thwacking of J. B. riding his rocking horse in the corner. All eyes were on me. . . .
She said, “What do you say, Calpurnia?”
What does Calpurnia say? What could I say? That I wanted to throw the book–no better than kindling–into the fireplace? That I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all? That at that moment I could have done violence, that I could have punched them all in the face? Even Granddaddy. Yes, even him. Encouraging me the way he had, knowing that there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl. My life sentence had been delivered by my parents.
Calpurnia’s eyes open to the world around her, but her world hasn’t changed. She’s caught between what she wants to be and what she is expected to be. Like most women that came of age during that time period. The ending is not wrapped up in a pretty bow–Calpurnia is frustrated. There’s no afterword, fast-forwarding a few years to show her at the University. Her life is in flux. She accepts her path, but is not resigned to it. She accepts it because she doesn’t have much choice.
So often, in historical fiction with a “spunky” or “modern” heroine, the heroine winds up defying the odds. She’s one of the ones that breaks through all of those historical barriers. With Calpurnia, you just don’t know what happens to her. And I love that. That uncertainty can start such wonderful conversations about college education for women, suffrage, careers, etc. In a way that kids can hopefully connect with, without such topics being an Issue that requires a Historical Note. So yeah, I love this book and would love it even if it wasn’t set in Fentress, Texas. But that setting is a wonderful, delightful bonus.
So, Jacqueline Kelly, I know you’re still basking in the glow of the Newbery Honor Award. And I’m thrilled for you! But get back to work and keep writing. We need more books like this. They don’t have to be about Calpurnia (and a big part of me hopes that things are left ambiguous). But we need more historical fiction like this. A lot more.