This summer, we’re visiting turn-of-the-20th-century Texas with our Book Club pick: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Tune in via Zoom on September 27 to meet author Jacqueline Kelly and see related primary sources from New-York Historical’s collection!
We had a chance to speak with Jacqueline and ask her a few of our most burning questions. Read on for her answers!
What was your inspiration for this novel? Why did you set the story in Texas?
The novel was inspired by a big old Victorian farmhouse in Fentress, TX, that I fell in love with many years ago. I wasn’t looking for a house—I already had a house—but the second I stepped over the threshold I knew I had to live there. The ceilings were really high, sunlight poured in from all angles, and I felt completely happy at that moment. The house spoke to me.
I set the story in Texas because I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere, so it feels very familiar to me. (I have also lived in New Zealand, Canada, and Oregon, but for much shorter times.) I think most writers find it’s easier writing about an environment you know well. Although this doesn’t apply to books set on Mars, obviously.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is how detailed you are in describing 19th-century Texas—from the “Wind Machine” from page 18 to Calpurnia’s mother’s favorite “Lady Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.” What sources did you use to make Calpurnia’s world historically accurate?
I’ve always been fascinated with the times around 1900 when life was changing so fast. Automobiles were replacing horses; the telephone was replacing letters. I’ve read quite a bit about that time and, without really thinking about it, soaked up details like a sponge. Also my mother, now 89, told me stories about how life was for her mother—details like clothes drying rack that hung from the kitchen ceiling, like a pump at the kitchen sink, like sticking your hand in the oven to gauge the temperature. Small details like this help to bring a story alive. I also used the online Handbook of Texas, and various old photographs found in books and junk stores.
Did you draw from personal experience when crafting any of the characters or relationships in the book?
Well, Calpurnia is 60% me, 30% my mother (who is very funny, and not at all like Mother in the book), and 10% childhood friends of mine. The description of the piano recital is all about my own terror at my first experience of playing before an audience. Fortunately, I never had to do it again. And I confess I don’t much like cooking and cleaning and sewing. There are too many good books out there still to read!
Have you ever conducted scientific research? What is the most challenging part in your opinion?
My college degree is in biology and chemistry. I took several courses that required research of some kind, my favorite being out in the field counting plants and bugs in a one-meter square area of desert on a hill overlooking the University of Texas at El Paso.
I loved your choice to begin every chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin. What made his words and beliefs so controversial in 1899? Do you think scientists today similarly struggle to have their discoveries widely accepted and taught?
There were many people in 1899 who still believed the Earth was flat, that wasn’t so unusual at that time when not everyone had access to education or books, things we now take for granted. It was common for people to have only a third-grade education before going to work in the fields. Darwin’s work was still shocking and controversial in rural communities. And I know that scientists today still struggle for acceptance of their work. My husband is an astrophysicist, and I watched him struggle mightily to have his work on neutron stars accepted worldwide. It was painful to see him scoffed at for a whole decade!
While the novel is set in the aftermath of the Civil War, you chose not to label the war as such. You hint that Calpurnia’s grandfather and many of the older men in town fought for the Confederacy. Why did you decide not to explicitly address the war? How did this choice impact the way you chose to write the character of Viola and her relationship with the family?
At that time the Civil War would have been called only the War—the biggest and bloodiest war anyone had been exposed to, and since there were still so many survivors around, everyone would know what you meant when you just said the War. Those who have been in battle and seen terrible things tend to not want to talk about it. They work hard at forgetting. And since the South lost, there has always been an undertone of anger and bitterness even today when discussing it. In 1900, it would not have been a topic of polite conversation. Grandfather remembers it only reluctantly. Viola would have been the daughter or granddaughter of slaves but now works for wages, so her life is improved over her ancestors’ lives, and she is a valued member of the household. Nevertheless, her choices as a Black woman in that time and place are still severely limited.
Throughout the novel, Calpurnia’s interest in science and the outdoors goes against her mother’s expectations of her as a young lady in the 19th century. What do you hope your young readers will learn from her mother’s disapproval? What advice would you give to young people who are struggling to find their own path and voice when others tell them they should not or cannot be who and what they want to be?
Calpurnia was lucky—she had Grandfather to help her in her battle, but even he was limited in the amount of help he could give her at that time. I’d advise a young person today to seek help in the form of someone—or something—who can point the way. That might be a parent, a teacher, a friend. It could even be a library full of books, or even one particular book, that sets you on your path. Read everything you can get your hands on, talk to people with jobs you find interesting. Ask questions. Be curious. Read. Persist.
By Ava Prince