September 3, 2011

…In Which I Look Closely at a Dead Mosquito

I’ve finished Emily’s pick for my Year of Reading at Your Mercy, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, and now I’m gonna write about it.

It was such a refreshing read for me, sandwiched between my previous YORAYM book, Lamb, which is hilarious but large in scope, and my current book club pick, The Sparrow, which weaves together different time periods. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a straightforward tale in which the title character, Calpurnia (Callie Vee), chronicles several months of her emerging-adolescent life. The primary thread of these months is a newly discovered kinship with her heretofore aloof grandfather, with whom she cultivates a mutual love of observing and recording the natural world. In short, Callie Vee and her grandfather come to find they are both naturalists. The problem is that it’s 1899 and Callie Vee lives in Fentress County, Texas, where even librarians are scandalized by “Darwin’s book” and girls are expected to love needlepoint, the dream of future domesticity, and not much else.

As a reader, I was taken by Callie Vee’s dream of being a scientist just as freely as she herself is, never mind the voice in my head that marveled at how her grandfather forgets to warn her (or just plain forgets) that she’ll have to fight to stay the path, that she’ll face stumble after stumble if she wants to carry on. (But then, her grandfather has nothing to lose. He’s a old man who has paid his dues and is free to stumble as he will, free to live in the present. He narrows his vision onto the Calpurnia that is, not the Calpurnia that must become.) The story reaches it’s climax when Callie Vee realizes what all, or what little, is expected of her as an up and coming woman, and that is when my heart broke along with hers. I would bet that anyone who has ever been drawn onto a path that is not well-worn will inhabit Callie Vee’s heart as well.

Callie Vee’s best friend is Lula Gates. She’s not a central figure in the story, but I think the contrast between Callie Vee and Lula is interesting. The “womanly” arts come naturally to Lula. She is literally a ribbon-winning “girl.” And, through no effort of her own, she draws the puppy love of three of Callie Vee’s brothers, as any proper damsel should. What I like about the dynamic between Callie Vee and Lula is that even though Lula is example A of who a girl should be in turn-of-the-century Texas, compared to Callie Vee, she is asleep. Callie Vee knows what she wants and goes for it, while Lula drips like honey through her life. If Lula’s like honey, then Callie Vee is a bee.

One of the things I enjoyed about my previous read, Lamb, was discovering what life might have been like in Jesus’s Nazareth. Well now I have a picture of what life would have been like on a Texas cotton farm in 1899, what it would have felt like to walk with Callie Vee. This book is luscious. I wanted to curl into the pages and lie back in Callie Vee’s river, no matter the microscopic scum. I wanted to wipe the sweat off the bridge of Lula Gates’s nose! I swear, I can feel it on the tip of my finger here as I type. One of my favorite scenes is when Callie Vee wakes up to a big snow, her first snow, and she sees flat out in front of her how drastically the world can change, just like that.

I highlighted several passages as I read. I’ll spare you all but two:

In the throes of disillusionment and introspection, Callie Vee sits on the porch at dusk and kills a gluttonous mosquito which has been slowed by the weight of Callie Vee’s own blood. (Silly me, I’ve never thought deeply about a dead mosquito before. Leave it to Callie Vee.)

Apparently too much of a good thing could kill you…Look at the smeared evidence. The mosquito was a clear success in terms of getting plenty of food, but a failure in terms of living to a good old age, and expiring peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by her many keening grandchildren. So was she fit, or unfit?

And here is one from Callie Vee’s grandfather I hope never to forget:

It is better to travel with hope in one’s heart than to arrive in safety.

To me, this line gets at two points. One, as grandfather explains in the next paragraph, is that the pleasure is in the journey, or “the experiment,” and that the sadness of an end outweighs the joy of a success. The other, in my mind, is that if we don’t travel with hope in our hearts, if the journey is a burden, then the safety of arrival is not worth what we’ve lost along the way.

As a reader, I appreciate that this book was written with exquisite care, the care of a naturalist, and I think that’s why it is so effortless and luscious a read.

And now I see that, as a writer, from Christopher Moore I would like to take “brave enough to write funny” and from Jacqueline Kelly “exquisite care.” Oh, and from Feynman… Well, I just want to be like Feynman. Although, I suppose he’d say I should be like myself.

I’m done jabbering now. Soon, I get to poll for another book!

On an aside, I want to keep track of how I’m reading the various YORAYM books. So to catch up–I read a paperback copy of David’s pick (#1), What Do You Care What Other People Think, from our own shelves; I checked out Karen’s pick (#2), Lamb, in paperback from my stomping grounds, the Knox County Public Library; and I bought Emily’s pick (#3), The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, on my Kindle. (As I mention above, right now I’m reading for my wonderful book club. It’s Anna Leah’s pick, and she chose The Sparrow, which I have also checked out from the library. I just got to that point in the story, you know–the point where you know you’re in. I heart reading.)