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Book Report: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate won a bunch of awards, and has an absolutely terrific cover. So. Plus, my Best Reader read it first, and liked it, so there’s that.

The thing that struck me (other than liking the book, because it is a terrific book) was the problem that goes along with setting a book in Texas in 1899. Or anywhere in the South any time within half a century of the turn of twentieth century. Which is that almost all the white characters are going to be supporters of the Confederacy or sympathetic to the Rebel Cause. It’s very hard for me to like a character that supports secession to protect the institution of slavery; I hope it’s very hard for most people to like such characters. You can make the book about race relations, of course, but if there is some other story you want to tell about the South, you have to wrestle with it.

Jacqueline Kelly does an excellent job of wrestling with this problem, I think—but I also think it defeats her in the end. She makes her family, the Tates, reasonably enlightened for their time period, without making them implausibly modern in their thinking. Calpurnia’s grandfather, who is the great character of the novel, is a veteran of the Confederacy; he certainly shows no sign of regret, other than having lost. I mean, war is dreadful, and he regrets the horror of it, but the specific matter of fighting to protect rich white people’s right to own poor black people, well, that doesn’t enter into it for him. Nor would it, of course. The black farm hands and house servants are treated quite well by the Tates, but not implausibly well, and there is some sense that they are not treated as well by other families but Calpurnia isn’t terribly interested in that question, and there is no reason why she would be. This is part of her privilege, the ability not to be interested in that question, as well as her ignorance of that privilege. Portraying it otherwise would be dishonest.

And yet, I am aware of her privilege. I am aware that these people are Part of the Problem, and that it is a huge problem. We have inherited it from the Tates, among others, and it’s actually kind of hard not to hate them for it.

I don’t know what the answer is. Obviously, the answer is not for writers to refuse to write books set in the South unless they are centrally concerned with race. The answer is not to make every White Southerner in fiction either a cartoon villain or a preposterous visionary. And, alas, it seems that the answer is not to simply write good books with good characters, characters that are true to their lives and their situations, and let the reader handle it.

You know, my own method is simply to read other stuff: Young Adult novels set in phoney Renaissance Maerchenwald, or space opera with giant robots, or genteel Victoriana. This is my privilege; I can choose to leave the problem unanswered. If that means that I miss good books about a little girl becoming a disciple of Darwin, well, that’s my problem, and not much of a problem at that, what with, you know, lots of good books in the world.

I am joking, of course, at my own expense (or attempting to, anyway), but in seriousness, my problem with a book like this one, good but problematic through no fault of its own, is not as a read but as the parent of a reader. This is a book that I want my Perfect Non-Reader to enjoy after she has some control over her awareness of her own privilege, the history of our country and its literature, and all that complicated jazz. But it’s also a book I want my Perfect Non-Reader to enjoy in the next year or two, not when she is forty-one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.