By small and gradual changes are great things achieved. That’s one of the defining principles of evolution, and of Calpurnia Virginia Tate, the heroine in this novel. I finished reading her story aloud to my 11-year-old daughter last week. I suppose she’s too old for read-alouds, but I’m not telling her. Already we don’t do it every evening as we used to, which means I have the time to write reviews while she splits a gut with her father over a Netflix comedy. One of those small, gradual changes.
Calpurnia’s eleven in 1899, living near Austin, Texas with her well-to-do traditional family, the only girl of seven governed by her harried, proper mother and her responsible father who operates a prosperous pecan and cotton farm. There’s the grandfather who all the children are alarmed by. He and Calpurnia strike up a relationship bound by their fascination with the natural world. In the ramshackle former slave quarters he’s converted into his laboratory, he introduces her to the ever-expanding world of science. Always there are careful questions, little discoveries, small accidents that lead to a rather grand discovery, though I’ll be good and not say what it is. The other force in Calpurnia’s life, as intractable as gravity, is her mother who has high aspirations for her only daughter. She intends to make her daughter marriageable. It is, after all, the task set before all young women, one that tears at Calpurnia as she sees the walls close about her. She loves her family. The way she talks about them, you can’t help love the whole bunch, including the domestic help, with their romantic mishaps and comic doings and dinnertime dramas.
And here I am, more than a century later, reading it to my daughter and getting choked up because Calpurnia’s dilemma is still mine and will be my daughter’s. Family or career? And if both, how? And if one and not the other, how to reconcile yourself to the loss? Homeschooling my two, I understand the pull to get myself out there. Wasting my life on laundry and dirty floors, I am. At one point, I had to stop reading and my daughter wrapped her arm around my shoulder and pressed herself against me. And that made me feel worse because I don’t want her to feel resented. I hate to think she thinks I begrudge her.
And it’s not only a gender-specific quandary. One of the more touching scenes is with Calpurnia’s youngest brother, four-year-old JB. For supper, the family is presented Calpurnia’s pie, a sorry patched creation that the family chokes down. JB, the boy, asks why he can’t make a pie, and his mother explains that his wife will make him one. He’s not satisfied. And I wonder how many modern men aren’t either?
Maybe by small, gradual changes Calpurnia, JB and my daughter and son can make their pie and eat it, too.
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