Thursday, October 11, 2012

For the International Day of the Girl Child: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The world has very few women scientists, although the first and only person ever to have received the Nobel  in two different branches of science, was Marie Curie, a woman. It is an unfortunate, though proven fact that there is a decided gender bias against women in the STEM fields of education and careers.

The damage starts early. Gender studies have proved that girls are considered not good enough in math and the sciences. This bias is often carried by female math and science teachers too, unfortunately sending the subliminal message to girls in their formative years, that they cannot do well at these subjects. It becomes a chicken-and-egg situation, leading to fewer girls taking up the STEM faculties at higher levels.

Today, on the International Day of the Girl Child, here is a book that looks at a historically significant period in science- a time when the world was poised on the brink of the new, technologically rich world- with a scientifically inclined 12-year old girl as the protagonist.

pic courtesy flipkart
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Written by Jacqueline Kelly
Published by Square Fish, an imprint of MacMillan
Ages 8+

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 Darvin'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.

Here is an interview with Jacqueline Kelly, the author of this book.
pic courtesy

ST: You have a medical background. How and why did this book happen?
Jacqueline Kelly: I prefer not to talk about my medical past, but I can say that I have wanted to be a writer my whole life.

ST: Did the idea of using quotes from 'The Origin of Species' occur to you after the book was drafted, or was it one of the things that inspired the book?
Jacqueline Kelly: The quotes came after I had finished the book. I then read Darwin's entire work looking for appropriate quotes that would best fit each chapter. Some of them fit amazingly well, and some of them didn't. By the way, Darwin wrote the book for a general audience, and not for scientists, so it is an amazingly accessible read. I recommend it.

ST: Why was the story placed in Texas?
Jacqueline Kelly: The story was placed in Texas because it was inspired by a 150-year-old farmhouse I bought years ago in Fentress. The house in the book was my house. Sadly, it was struck by lightning and burned to the ground three years ago. I still miss it badly. I wrote large parts of the book sitting on the front porch as Callie did, waiting for something to hop or scurry or fly by and give me something to write about.

ST: I was deeply moved as I finished the book and put it down. Somehow I was not convinced that Callie's parents had taken her scientific temperament very seriously, and might renege on any support when Granddaddy is no longer around. Have you left Callie Vee's fate hanging like that on purpose? Is there a sequel in the offing that might put girls' minds at rest regarding that concern? (This is something that has been bothering my 11 year old daughter!)
Jacqueline Kelly: I didn't mean to be quite as vague as I apparently was about Callie's future. But fear not, there is a sequel in the works that will make everything clear! I have only recently started it, so I don't yet know when it will be published.

ST: That is certainly we would be looking out for. Speaking of sequels, could you tell us a little bit about your next book, Return to the Willows, that we are waiting eagerly for? I believe it is being released on October 23rd 2012.
Jacqueline Kelly: Return to the Willows was inspired by my life-long love of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, a book I have loved since reading it in bed with the flu' at age eight.
I have loved his book for so long, and his characters have lived in my head for so long, that I thought I would write a sequel as a tribute to him, my way of saying thank-you for creating Rat and Mole and Toad and Badger. (Well, maybe not Toad.)


Choxbox said...

Lovely book, awesome interview.

And I am totally smiling at the first question and answer ;)

Look forward to reading the sequel and the soon-to-be-released book.

sathish said...


I did not know that Calpurnia Tate revolved around science. I wanted to read the book only because of its wonderful cover - now this review makes me read it soon.

Jacqueline Kelly, Sandhya, Thanks a lot for a wonderful interview.

sandhya said...

@Chox: Thanks. That is certainly serendipitous, isn't it. I could also call it wishful thinking. :)

@Sathish: Do read the book, Satish- would love to hear what Ranjani and you would have to say.

In an interview I read online, Jacqueline Kelly says that the cover was made by cutting out the lattice in paper.

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