Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Literary Equivalent of a Casserole

When I was a teen during the 70s, and Crock-pots were new, there was a casserole recipe for the slow cooker that was featured at just about every family get-together for a while. The casserole was called Panama Johnny Hash, and it featured a long list of tasty ingredients: browned ground beef, cheese, several "cream of" soups, noodles, onions, and probably some other things I've forgotten. Sounds pretty good, huh? The problem is, once all those good things were put together, Panama Johnny Hash was really sort of nondescript, with no one flavor that really stood out and gave the dish character.

As I drew near the end of Jacqueline Kelly's book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I came to think of it as the Panama Johnny Hash of the books I've read lately. The book, which is a 2010 Newberry Honor book, has a lot of good ingredients: a spunky heroine, an interesting setting (both in terms of time and place), some important themes (more on that later), some beautiful descriptive passages, some moments that really ring true with rural life. However, if I'm going to be honest, I have to say nothing about this book rose from the mix and stood out in my mind as THE distinctive ingredient. I was left feeling unsatisfied, and as is my manner, I want to try to figure out why.

I guess the thing that bothers me most is that I can't identify the overall message of the book. Maybe this is a false notion, but I feel that when a reader has invested the amount of time it takes to read a book (I'm talking a serious book, here, not one of those pulp novels meant for nothing but entertainment), he or she should be able to bring away some nugget of truth about life. I have a feeling Ms. Kelly wanted the "truth nuggest" for this book to be something about how limited the life choices for girls used to be (see? I can't even put into a sentence what that "something" is). Calpurnia is not interested in the traditional "girl" activities; she wants to be a scientist like her grandfather. Yet at the end of the book, we are left wondering just what Calpurnia is going to do. (Spoilers!) On Christmas Eve, her parents give her a book called The Science of Housewifery, and she is crushed.

"...there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl. My life sentence had been delivered by my parents. There was no pardon or parole. No aid from any corner. Not from Granddaddy, not from anybody....Great fatigue washed over me like a tidal wave, drowning my anger. I was too tired to fight anymore."

Later, on New Year's Eve, she makes a list of the things she wants to see in her life, but even as she reads them to the rest of the family, she felt "vaguely melancholy." The next morning, though, there's snow -- a very unusual sight in that part of Texas -- and Calpurnia runs out into it, and concludes

"My feet were turning into blocks of ice, and I realized I was exhausted...It was the first morning of the first day of the new century. Snow blanketed the ground. Anything was possible."

So....does that mean she's not too tired to fight anymore? Does that means she's going to keep fighting against the social roles that tighten around her like a corset? Probably. But I can't be sure. That one sentence - "Anything was possible" - is not enough, mixed in with the context of observing a coyote in the snow, and wondering about the finches, and having cold feet, and seeing her grandfather in the window. If that was meant to be THE message, it just blends in to everything else, like the melted cheese in Panama Johnny Hash.

There are other instances of the same kind of thing. The word "evolution" in the title leads me to believe Callie is going to undergo some kind of change and become something new and better. I don't really think that happens, unless it hinges on that "Anything was possible" sentence. The word also makes me think there is going to be some link to Darwin's theory of evolution. Sure, Calpurnia's grandfather teaches her about "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection." Sure, every chapter begins with a short epigraph from Darwin's Origin of the Species. But for most of those epigraphs, I didn't see a connection to the content of the chapter; it was more like the epigraph was put there to be Meaningful (if you know what I mean).

My biggest problem is that this book couldn't seem to decide what it wanted to be. Is it a book about a girl who chafes against the restrictions of late 19th-century life and wants to be a scientist? Sort of. But then there are several chapters that have nothing to do with that theme. Several chapters make me think the book wants to be one of those funny collections of stories about a quirky Southern family. Some parts make me think the book wants to be about growing up and realizing you won't be living in the same house forever and wanting to hold on to that. Some parts make me think the book wants to be about a girl who comes to have a close relationship with her grandfather. (Actually, that's the "flavor" that stands out most to me.) Any one of those themes is great, but having all of them in there together really makes it hard for one to predominate and give the book its character.

I read something last week that said everything in a book should support and underscore the theme. Anything that doesn't contribute in some way to conveying the message of the book should be left out. I think that's why I'm not satisfied with Kelly's book. There's so much, so many competing flavors, that I'm left feeling full, but without any real sense of what it was I ate.

No comments: