I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
The spunky female protagonist is one of my favorite tropes, especially in historical fiction. In Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly tries to convince us that the trope actually existed in 1900 rural Texas.
Enter Calpurnia Tate. A twelve-year-old daughter in a respectable family, she is expected to play the piano, knit gloves, learn to cook, and generally learn all the skills necessary to become a dull proper housewife. When it comes to her six brothers, her parents promise them a full college education without hesitation; when it comes to Calpurnia, they reluctantly promise half. But we, the readers, know better; we see her boredom with the tasks her mother forces upon her and celebrate her independence. We witness her astounding intellectual curiosity and see the beginnings of a great scientist, despite the fact that according to the people around her, only boys are smart enough for that career.
What follows is a series of adventures that made me laugh, made me cheer, made me want to turn back the clock so I could bang the sexist people of the past over the head with a frying pan.
Maybe it is, once again, only my weakness for the spunky female protagonist. But, what's most remarkable about this story is how it showcases a young girl's potential, and how the people around her repeatedly deny her the opportunities to explore that potential--not because they're evil, but because sexism is so deeply internalized that no one but the people on the short end of the stick recognize it. A scene when Callie asks her parents to go to college with her brothers ends with her running from the dinner table in tears, which is totally unlike her usually dry and jokey self, but no wonder: there's not much more depressing than it being taken for granted that your consent, your desires, and your dreams mean nothing to the people who have power over your future.
Lamar snickered and said, "Why should you go to college? You're only a girl. You don't hardly count."
Father frowned and said, "Lamar, you will not speak to your sister in that tone."
And even in my rage, I registered the difference between what my father was saying and what he was not saying. He was not saying that Lamar was wrong. Only that he was rude.
But then, what's the appeal of the spunk? I suppose it's being reassured that young girls did know internally how much society was stacked against them, and still managed not to let that rule their lives. Aside from Calpurnia's droll humor and adventurous spirit, this book uses science to level the playing field--how being knowledgeable in an area gives you a different perspective, changes your values to something worthwhile. Callie's grandfather doesn't nurture Callie because she's special, but because he respects intellect, curiosity, and diligent scholarship--all of which Callie possesses, and her brothers don't.
Something cool about that is that it made me value it too. The power of careful observation and analysis is a recurring theme. The sighting of a seagull foretells the 1900 Galveston hurricane; Callie uses her homemade barometer and her grandfather's teachings about high vs. low air pressure to accurately predict a rainstorm. Honestly speaking, Callie and her grandfather did more to instill in me a respect for the relevance and awe of science than did a decade of school. Research is not only flawless, but so tightly woven into the setting and story that I have to use a cliche to describe it: the natural world of rural Texas feels like its own character. And I say this as someone who hates reading about 19th-20th century rural America.
But I definitely didn't hate this book. In fact, I loved it. Something about Kelly's writing lifts the past beyond only making it feel real--makes it feel immediate, bridging the time gap through a character that no reader could help but love. Inventions such as the telegram and automobile inspire wonder. The turn of a new century brings promising prospects to women that makes me optimistic for Calpurnia's future. Having fallen in love with the prequel years ago, how could I resist? I couldn't, and was delighted.