Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

Jacqueline Kelly
For ages 9 to 12
Henry Holt, 2015   ISBN: 978-0805097443

The year is nineteen hundred and a new century has begun. The auspicious year begins with a bang when it snows on New Year’s Day. In many places this would not be much of an occurrence, but in central Texas a snowfall is very rare, and thirteen-year-old Calpurnia Virginia Tate, or Callie, is delighted to see how her “ordinary” town has been turned into “a landscape of pristine beauty.”

Callie has high hopes for the new century after this promising beginning, but not much has happened since the snow fell. Indeed, her life is a rather dull cycle of homework, housework, and piano lessons. The only thing that really gives her life purpose are the ongoing nature studies that Granddaddy, who is an avid amateur naturalist and scientist, is giving her. Together they discovered a new species of hairy vetch, and now Callie sincerely hopes to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become a scientist.

When spring arrives Callie starts feeling a little anxious. Actually, everyone in her household has cause to be concerned because this the season when animals have their babies, and all too often these babies end up being orphaned. Travis, Callie’s animal-loving younger brother, frequently finds these orphans and brings them home, much to the displeasure of this parents.

One March morning Callie and Travis are out exploring when they find a young nine-banded armadillo. In spite of the animal’s noxious smell, Travis brings it home. Even though Armand (or Dilly) is not in the least bit friendly, Travis persists in trying to befriend him (or her). Nothing Callie says convinces Travis to give up the armadillo. Then Granddaddy mentions that a scientist has discovered that armadillos can be a vector for leprosy and Travis lets the animal go, much to Callie’s relief.

One would think, after this highly unsatisfactory encounter, that Travis would desist from bringing home more young wild creatures, but it is not long before he comes home with two blue jay chicks. One of the babies dies soon after it is found, but the other, Jay, thrives and forms a close bond with Travis. Unfortunately one of the household cats gets Jay and what follows is funeral attended by a heartbroken Travis and sad Callie.

Not long after this sad loss Callie is out in the early morning when she sees a bird she has never seen before. It has webbed feet and grey-and-white plumage. Callie draws a picture of the bird in her brand new notebook and then she goes to look at Granddaddy’s bird book to see if she can identify it. It turns out that the bird is a laughing gull, which is very odd as Callie and her family live two hundred miles from the coast. Granddaddy inspects his barometer and he becomes very concerned. Often the movement of animals presages that a big storm or our natural disaster is on the way.

Granddaddy wastes no time. He contacts the mayors of Galveston, Houston, and Corpus Christi to warn them of the coming threat, and insists that Callie’s mama calls her relatives in Galveston to advise them to flee to higher ground.

Callie worries that all this fuss will be for nothing but alas the gull was right to head inland. The next morning news arrives that a big storm did indeed hit the coast. All lines of communication with Galveston are silent, and Callie’s mother has no idea if her relatives survived the catastrophe. Father decides that he must go to the stricken city to help as best he can and soon he, his son Harry, and the family’s hired man leave home to travel to Galveston. They take supplies with them and King Arthur, the big work horse who will no doubt be useful for clearing roads and hauling away debris.

In the end Father and Harry are gone for a month, and when they come home they are greatly changed. They bring two refugees with them; an animal doctor who plans to begin anew in their town, and cousin Aggie, who behaves very strangely indeed.

This marvelous book takes us into the life of a very unique girl who is fascinated by the world around her and who has an avid love for learning. Though so many changes are taking place in the world at that time, Callie soon discovers that society still is not willing to offer her the same opportunities and freedoms that her brothers are given. She longs to go to college, and yet her parents will not even consider sending her. She mentions that she might like to become an animal doctor, and she is told that it is not a suitable profession for a woman.

Readers will be delighted to see how Callie finds her own path. She discovers that if she wants something in life she is going to have to stand up for herself, and she is going to have to be creative and work hard to get it.