The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Calpurnia’s Insightful Observations

  • “There’s nothing creepy about it. It’s scientific interest. Backy Medlin looks kind of decrepit to me. How old is he, do you reckon?”
  • Backy’s name came from his prodigious use of chewing tobacco and his poor aim at the spittoon. He spat frequently, randomly, mightily. A constant foul brown rain pattered down on the dust around him, and you had to keep a sharp lookout.
  • There was one strange thing about her that I found fascinating: She always had a delicate mist of perspiration across the bridge of her nose, winter or summer. It was barely enough to moisten a fingertip, but when you wiped it away, it immediately reappeared. This sounds unattractive, but it was entertaining rather than off-putting. As a small child, I would stand there and dab it away and watch it return for as long as she would let me. There seemed to be no explanation for it.
  • My next job was to keep an eye on the two dozen or so babies who played in the yard between the house and the outside kitchen while their mothers worked the fields, and to make sure they didn’t get pecked by the busy, officious hens who were aggrieved by this invasion of their normal habitat. I was not happy with this unpaid duty, either, especially when I had to watch Sam Houston and Lamar prance off to the gin and come home with money.
  • Now, fainting. There’s a subject I’d always wondered about. The heroines in books seemed to faint a lot, swaying genteelly onto a handy padded couch or into the convenient arms of some concerned suitor. These heroines were always willowy and managed to land in graceful postures of repose, and were revived with the merest passing of a decorated flagon of smelling salts under their noses. I, on the other hand, apparently went over like a felled ox and was lucky to land on the grass and avoid cracking my head open.
  • Ahead of me lay perfection. Could I stand it? Could I bear to mar it with my presence? I could. I had to have this gift of the moment—this great gift of the new century—to myself for one more minute, a few more precious seconds, before the bustle and shouts and tracks of the others shattered it forever.

On Family

  • Mother disliked Petey’s presence but tolerated him because he would eventually turn into something beautiful. Mother yearned for Beauty in her life
  • My mother had got one girl out of seven tries at it. I guess I wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind, a dainty daughter to help her bail against the rising tide of the rough-and-tumble boyish energy that always threatened to engulf the house. It hadn’t occurred to me that she’d been hoping for an ally and then didn’t get one.
  • But my mother’s life was a never-ending round of maintenance. Not one single thing did she ever achieve but that it had to be done all over again, one day or one week or one season later. Oh, the monotony.

On Nature & Science

  • It would have been an ordeal to push my way through it except that the regular river patrons—dogs, deer, brothers—kept a narrow path beaten down through the treacherous sticker burrs that rose as high as my head and snatched at my hair and pinafore as I folded myself narrow to slide by.
  • What if it had gotten out? Had I tightened the lid on the jar after opening it the last time? What if it was flying loose around the room? Then I caught myself. Calpurnia Virginia Tate. You’re being ridiculous. Are you a Scientist or aren’t you? Come on, now. It’s. Only. A. Moth.

Wise Gems

  • And when something is all you know, it’s easy to stand it.
  • I didn’t feel like sharing, and I didn’t feel like explaining. They had their own lives. And now I have mine, I thought, exulting as I ran.
  • It is better to travel with hope in one’s heart than to arrive in safety.
  • It was more important to understand something than to like it. Liking wasn’t necessary for understanding. Liking didn’t enter into it.
  • “Plato said all science begins with astonishment.”

To Contemplate

  • If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaff life of only womanly things. I was depressed right into the ground.
  • Why waste time “playing,” as I’d been ordered, when I could spend some valuable time with Granddaddy? He didn’t find me dangerous when I wondered about something. In fact, he encouraged it.
  • Where had all the abounding life gone? The lack of living things made the landscape both beautiful and menacing.
  • Sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day, or at least take off some of the shine.

Marvellous World Building

  • The little boys actually managed to sleep at midday, sometimes even piled atop one another like damp, steaming puppies. The men who came in from the fields and my father, back from his office at the cotton gin, slept too, first dousing themselves with tin buckets of tepid well water on the sleeping porch before falling down on their rope beds as if poleaxed.
  • They had banded together to fill in the bare spots on the globe and to pull the country out of the morass of superstition and backward thinking in which it floundered after the War Between the States. All of this was heady news of a world far removed from hankies and thimbles, patiently delivered to me under a tree amidst the drowsing bees and nodding wildflowers.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Petey, with a mighty effort, launched himself into the air and in that split second was transformed from an ungainly land-bound dweller into something else, a creature of the wind, a citizen of the air.
  • I leaned against the wall and stood there, empty, for a long time. Empty of everything. I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.
  • Travis had driven us, and the fair organizers, mad with his obsessive checking and rechecking that Bunny was entered in the rabbit/fur competition and not the rabbit/meat competition.
  • I contemplated my chances and fanned a dim ember of hope in my heart as I sat in the sun, reeking like a giant match.
  • My thoughts scattered in all directions like undisciplined troops facing their first fire, and it took me a moment to marshal them.
  • Finally, just when I thought I would pass out, I shoved my way through the last ring of spectators and there it was, in all its dazzling glory, something never seen before: a carriage without a horse. How to describe it? It looked like speed incarnate, its every line carved by the wind. There were the shining brass appointments, the gracefully curved mudflap, the tufted black leather seat.
  • Great fatigue washed over me like a tidal wave, drowning my anger. I was too tired to fight anymore. I did the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. I reached down into the depths of my being, and I dredged up the beginnings of a watery smile.

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