It's the summer of 1899, 50 miles outside of Austin, Texas, and Calpurnia Tate's entire family, with the exception of her eccentric grandfather, is suffering from the heat. Nicknamed Callie Vee, the 11-year-old is the only girl, smack in the middle of six brothers. She has some secret weapons to deal with the heat--a spot all her own where she can strip down to her chemise and float in the cool San Marcos River, and a plan to surreptitiously cut an inch off her hair every week so her mother won't notice.Callie Vee loves making scientific observations, and when her favorite brother Harry gives her a notebook, she sets out to become a bona fide naturalist. In the process she finds that Grandaddy, who mostly keeps to himself in a shed called the laboratory out back, is a true kindred spirit. He not only has a copy of Mr. Darwin's Origin of Species, but has corresponded with the great scientist himself. As Grandaddy's partner, Callie Vee learns to become a keen observer of all around her, from plant and insect life to Harry's courting behavior.
At the same time that Callie Vee feels possibilities opening, the net of social expectations draws closer around her. Her attempts at the domestic arts aren't going so well, even though she tries to meet her mother's expectations.
Calpurnia Tate is not just another "spunky heroine." She is sincere in her struggles to master tatting and knitting, and begins to realize how hard she may have to fight to become a scientist. Kelly is able to show the full weight of the pressures upon women in the 19th century--as well as the excitement of discovery.
Her mother may find it "dangerous" when Callie Vee wanders, but by the time the year ends and 1900 begins, Calpurnia has a sign that perhaps the new century might bring her closer to the future she imagines for herself.
Peppered with quotes from Darwin and timed perfectly for his bicentennial, this warm, fully realized portrait of a family has the hallmark of a classic.
Deborah Hopkinson wrote about Mr. Darwin in Who Was Charles Darwin? Her new book is Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole.