What I believe in
I recently finished a second read of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, after having read the ARC many months ago. Comments on Jonathan’s original post continue to pop up over a month later, and we’ve been comparing it to many other books in subsequent posts.
Jonathan said in one such comment:
"I’m all for understanding that a plot-driven plot and a character-driven plot are trying to accomplish different things, and judging them accordingly, but to my mind both CATCHING FIRE and CALPURNIA TATE both suffer from the same problem–too many words–despite being fairly good examples of each type of plot.
"I think A SEASON OF GIFTS is an episodic, character-driven plot just like CALPURNIA TATE is and Richard Peck accomplishes just as much characterization and character development as Jacqueline Kelly does–but in half as many words. So just as I think you can make the criticism of CATCHING FIRE that the excess verbiage hampers the other literary elements, I think you can likewise argue the same for CALPURNIA. Just because the writing isn’t as average as CATCHING FIRE, that doesn’t mean that somehow the other literary elements are better."
I have to say that I don’t have the excess verbiage problem. I like every one of Kelly’s words. I am, however, like jay, commenting recently, "So over CT." Very quickly into my re-read I started remembering why I both thought this would be a contender, and why I thought it shouldn’t win.
Recall my curious problem with Catching Fire? I couldn’t wait to get back to it, to see what would happen next, yet, while reading it, I found myself mostly unconvinced, manipulted, and bored? I have the opposite problem with Calpurnia Tate. Always engrossing while I was there. Not much pull to return to it when I wasn’t.
I have several structural quibbles with the book, each so minor I’m not sure it’s worth bothering here, but together adding up to a feeling that this story doesn’t quite hold together…and yet, it’s made of such good stuff that I can’t wait to see what Kelly dishes up next, and would be surprised if she doesn’t hit gold soon.
The "good stuff" is the characterization and the setting, both of which are convincingly real. That Texas heat is palpable. The house and the grounds clearly drawn in my memory, even before my re-read. The various brothers’ different personalities, the undercurrent of the parent’s romance colored by Victorian repression…each side character is intriguing. These characters are as real to me as Peck’s…and I don’t understand why they should be better in fewer words. CT never read wordy to me, though I can understand the sense of spinning on and on without action.
In the end, it’s this vividness,…the fact that, while reading, I believe in these characters and this place, I feel that "I’m there," the author "disappears"…that makes me think this is stylistically strong. Weak on plot, yes, and in the end an unconvincing structure, but I can see why so many (female, book-nerdy) adults are fond of this title.
And to me, it still rises above several other titles that you all have asked us to take a look at, including these, which are all commendable, just not, to me, as Newbery contenders:
The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. I didn’t finish it, but could see it was well-written, and could see exactly where it was heading. Read the reviews to confirm I wasn’t missing anything. Bottom line: I believed in the author more than I believed in the characters, from page 1.
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. This was pitched for the "humor" category, though it’s not funny. The unreliable-narrator has a humorous tone that should help temper a very serious story…but in the end just slights the material. Same story has been done better. I do like the way this one zips along.
Neil Armstong Is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me. Nice one. Main character is great, others are totally flat and simply not believable. I was always extremeley aware of the author and of the story she wanted me to hear.
Tropical Secrets. Very nice, though I didn’t learn all I’d hoped to about the characters and the historical setting. Seems like for as much as we got it could have been a much shorter book…I’d just have liked to have learned much much more than I did through some lovely depicted but ultimately flat situations.
Wild Things. Like Jacqueline Kelly, I can see that Clay Carmichael is a writer to watch for…but she may have a little farther to come. I kept on putting this one down, then picking it up again, getting frustrated, putting it down. Wonderful characterization and setting…except that here and there, over and over, I can see Carmichael pulling the strings. Such a well-drawn protagonist, I’d believe her for several pages, and then–darn! Something comes out of her mouth or mind that is not in character, and the ventriloquism fails. Also: the point of view of the cat. Not a good idea.
Next to these, Calpurnia Tate is simply more convincing, and though I wouldn’t vote for it for the Newbery, I would be surprised to see it with a silver medal. It the perfect "Newbery type" isn’t it?…which may make it easier for some to forgive it its flaws.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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