Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. ISBN-10: 0805087214; ISBN-13: 978-0805087215. 272 p.

Plot Summary
This biography of Charles Darwin focuses more on his relationship with his wife, Emma, than on his famous travels on the HMS Beagle. Charles faced constant doubts about religion, an afterlife, and God's role in creating the earth--heretical notions in Victorian England. Emma Darwin, though she also had her doubts about some tenets of organized religion, was devoutly Christian, and determined that she would be with her beloved family in heaven. This story tells of the adjustments both had to make as they built a life together.

Critical Evaluation
Many biographies have been written about Charles Darwin, but most accounts of his life focus on his scientific discoveries, not his family. Heligman's approach is fresh and fascinating. Despite their religions differences, Heiligman makes it clear that Charles and Emma Darwin were well-matched and lived a happy life. The New York Times review says that "In today’s climate of division between religion and science, it’s instructive to read about a marriage in which the two cultures improved each for exposure to the other. Heiligman’s most revealing insight comes near the end of the book, as Darwin, having developed his ideas in private for 20-some years, spends a feverish 13 months writing them up in “The Origin of Species.” Without Emma, he might well have written a combative, antireligious treatise — “The God Delusion” of his day. Instead, his experience with his wife’s tolerant, reasonable brand of faith led him to temper his tone"(link). This book was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and a 2010 Printz Honor Book, as well as a recipient of YALSA's first-ever Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

Reader’s Annotation
Charles Darwin was a man of science, whose ideas on the origin of species were considered heretical by many religious people. His wife Emma was a religious woman of faith who believed strongly in God's creation of the earth and a heaven after death. How did two people who were so different build a happy life together?

Author Information
Deborah Heiligman was born and raised in Allentown, PA. She majored in religious studies at Brown University--she considered becoming a rabbi for about a week, but then had no idea what she wanted to do after graduation. She says, " I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't think real people were writers. I thought writers were like movie stars and that regular people like me couldn't be writers. At Brown all the people who said they were going to be writers wore all black, smoked lots of cigarettes (something I never did: my father was a lung doctor!), drank endless cups of coffee, and used such big words I couldn't understand what they were saying (I don't think they knew what they were saying either). My bet is that most of those people are lawyers or stockbrokers or maybe ski bums. Anyway, I bet they're happy. And so am I."

After college, Heiligman worked for a short time at MOMENT magazine, then got a job at the Scholastic News Explorer, writing articles for kids in grades 1 through 6. She says it was the best job she could have ever had, but doesn't regret quitting in 1985 to take care of her newborn son. She's published numerous articles in magazines such as Parents and Ladies' Home Journal, and has published over 25 children's books (source). She is married to the author Jonathan Weiner, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book The Beak of the Finch (about evolutionary biology, specifically in the finches Charles Darwin studied in the Galapogos Islands) and now teaches science writing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism (source).


Curriculum Ties
Science: Darwin's theory of evolution
History: Victorian England

Booktalking Ideas
-What do you know about Charles Darwin? Discuss his scientific legacy.
-Share Darwin's famed list debating the merits of marrying vs. not marrying.

Reading Level/Interest Age
Grades 8-12 (Booklist)

Challenge Issues
None, content wise. Some may wish to ban it because it discusses the theory of evolution, which is still a point of contention among some religious fundamentalists.

I included this book because it received good reviews and seemed interesting.


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