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Mothers and Daughters

By (October 1, 2009) 3 Comments

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

By Jacqueline Kelly
Henry Holt, 2009

When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead
Random House, 2009

In the shortening cycles of all things election and award-related, it’s only fitting that there should already be heated debate in the kidlitosphere about which book will win the 2010 Newbery award. Both The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead have received much acclaim since their publication earlier this year. Provided Neil Gaiman doesn’t release The Graveyard Book: Ultimate Deluxe Edition, these two books almost certainly will be included in the deliberations for the award.


Released in this year of all things Darwin, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate uses The Origin of Species (each chapter opens with an excerpt from the book) as the catalyst for a young girl’s rude awakening into the expectations and limits for women in turn of the century Texas. Calpurnia is the only daughter among seven children in the Tate family. The oppressive heat of the summer of 1899 spurs Calpurnia’s interest in nature as she observes animal life around her while cooling off in the river. Jacqueline Kelly’s writing is at its best when describing what Calpurnia sees:

When I reached the river, I stripped down to my chemise, floating on my back with my shimmy gently billowing around me in the mild currents, luxuriating in the coolness of the water flowing around me. I was a river cloud, turning gently in the eddies. I looked up at the filmy bags of webworms high above me in the lush canopy of oaks bending over the river. The webworms seemed to mirror me, floating in their own balloons of gauze in the pale turquoise sky.

When her oldest brother Harry gives her a notebook in which to record her observations, Calpurnia takes to her role of budding naturalist quickly. It’s when Calpurnia believes she has discovered a new species of grasshopper that her interest in the natural world becomes more than a summer hobby. She reaches out to her aloof grandfather, who has turned over the reins of the cotton gin to Calpurnia’s father so that he may spend his days holed up in his laboratory with his own amateur scientific endeavors.

The relationship between Calpurnia and her grandfather is the bedrock of the book. She turns to him for answers concerning the yellow grasshoppers she finds, and while he maintains his distance, he encourages her to research the answer on her own. After a humiliating trip to the library where she is denied a copy of The Origin of Species, Calpurnia uses her keen observations to determine that her yellow grasshopper isn’t a new species but one that has adapted to hide in the drought-ravaged grass. She returns to her grandfather with her findings and the story of her frustrating trip, earning his attention and his personal copy of Darwin’s book.

Calpurnia takes great solace in the time spent helping her grandfather with his own experiments, whether it be distilling pecans to make liquor or identifying a new species of plant. With him, she isn’t spoken down to; she doesn’t have to worry about keeping her dress clean or whether her darning is up to snuff. She can simply pursue her own interests. With these scenes, Kelly is able to develop Calpurnia as a heroine to root for, an intellectually curious girl who, though she struggles to understand Darwin’s work, is inspired to make sense of it by examining her own backyard. The scenes of Calpurnia and Grandaddy are rendered so wonderfully that the many subplots involving the large Tate family tend to fall flat. Some, like Calpurnia enduring the annoyance of three of her brothers wooing her best friend Lula, point toward the looming societal expectations that Calpurnia will have to face.

Calpurnia’s mother Margaret solidly enforces these expectations. The central conflict of the story is born out of Margaret’s desire for Calpurnia to be a proper lady who will be a fine homemaker when the time comes. Calpurnia see these efforts to mold her into marriage material as intrusive: “My time with Grandaddy slipped away as the domestic mill wheel gathered momentum, grinding its principal raw material – namely, me – into smaller and smaller scraps.”

Kelly’s depiction of Margaret is a major distraction in an otherwise well-crafted book. While the author allows Grandaddy to illuminate his past as a Civil War veteran and member of the National Geographic Society, our only insight into Margaret is related second hand by the Tates’ maid, Viola. Margaret desperately wants Calpurnia to attend coming out parties because she missed out on having one herself, because of the war. This bit of information comes far too late in the story, and it’s not enough to make Margaret a sympathetic character. There’s an almost cruel disregard for Calpurnia’s obvious intelligence on Margaret’s part, and no nuanced explanation as to why. In a book that so champions a woman’s right to chart her own destiny, it’s disappointing that Margaret is such a one-dimensional character.

  While The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate slowly unfolds over the course of nearly three hundred and forty pages, Rebecca Stead’s second novel When You Reach Me is an almost perfectly paced story in just under two hundred pages. While the book may be slim compared to other bloated middle grade and young adult fare, Stead manages to touch on a range of issues including the ever-shifting boundaries of adolescent friendships, the first pangs of a crush, single motherhood, the 1970s game show $20,000 Pyramid, and oh yes, time travel, too. It’s refreshing to read a book not weighed down by extraneous filler that also does not rush the story.

At its core, When You Reach Me is a mystery with a hint of science fiction thrown into the mix. The protagonist Miranda receives anonymous notes warning of a terrible incident that will soon occur, one that Miranda will play a role in stopping. As the mystery pulls us through the story, sixth grader Miranda also has to deal with her best friend Sal suddenly ignoring her after a schoolmate punches him without warning on their walk home from school. Stead deftly conveys Miranda’s confusion and hurt at the loss of her friend:

Sal played basketball more and more and talked to me less and less. I asked him four hundred times whether he was okay, or if he was mad at me, or what was wrong, and three hundred and ninety-nine times he answered “Yes,” and “No,” and “Nothing.” Then, the last time I asked, he told me, while standing in our lobby and looking at his feet, that he didn’t want to have lunch or walk home together for a while.

“Do you even want to be friends at all?” I asked him.

He glared at his feet and said no, he guessed he didn’t for awhile.

Providing distraction from Miranda’s woes is her mother’s quest to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda is raised by her mother, a paralegal who steals office supplies from her law firm when she is unhappy. Miranda and her mother’s boyfriend Richard pepper her with questions to prepare her for the game show and dream up ways to spend the money (“Trip to China” and “Good camera for trip to China” top the wish list). Stead presents a mother-daughter relationship that, though rife with adolescent tension, is loving and supportive. We’re allowed access to the mother’s background, so that their arguments are not one-sided affairs.

As Miranda struggles to unravel both the mysteries of the notes and Sal’s abandonment, she has several encounters with Marcus, the boy who sucker-punched Sal. The first of their conversations about time travel occurs in a dentist’s waiting room, where Marcus discusses the flaws in Miranda’s favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time. These encounters play a significant role in the ending of the book, one that is too good to give away, but they also slow down the movement of the story. In a later scene, Marcus and another schoolmate named Julia attempt to further illuminate the vagaries of time travel, using the diamond chips in Julia’s ring:

“…It’s the jumping, from one diamond to the next, that we call time, but like I said, time doesn’t really exist. Like that girl just said, a diamond is a moment, and all the diamonds on the ring are happening at the same time. It’s like having a drawer full of pictures.”

Now, explanations of time travel always leave me feeling irritable (yes, Lost, your ears should be burning). If a story is good, I’m willing to take the leap, no questions asked. Stead’s attempts to make sense of this left me just as confused as Miranda. Thankfully, this is the only hiccup in an otherwise fantastic book.

Rebecca Stead and Jacqueline Kelly have written excellent portrayals of young women coming into their own under trying circumstances. While The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate makes the reader feel deeply the oppressiveness of Calpurnia’s situation, the story takes a bit too long to develop. In comparison, When You Reach Me benefits from a compelling mystery that moves briskly without many hiccups along the way. While Miranda struggles to understand the extraordinary events that occur, it’s Stead’s attention to the mundane events of losing friends and making new ones that help make Miranda a winning protagonist. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, with its science-loving female protagonist, might be too good for the Newbery committee to pass up, but the genre-mixing When You Reach Me is storytelling at its best.

Kristin Brower Walker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston. She currently lives in Cooperstown, NY where she still can’t escape Red Sox fans. This is her first review for Open Letters.

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