Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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

Author: Deborah Heiligman
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co., 2008
Where and why: I saw this on display at my local library. I heard it had won a few awards and was curious about it, so I checked it out.

Deborah Heiligman takes on the challenge of writing a biography of one of the most famous scientists in history and his beloved wife, for young readers. But this isn't just a cut and dry book about science and religion—it's a love story that succeeded against all odds.

This was a great overview of the Darwins' life together. Emma was a devoted Christian, and Charles was a devoted scientist with serious doubts about God; yet they managed to make it work, so great was their love for each other. We start off with Darwin's famous pros and cons list of marriage, moving on to his first failed engagement, and finally into his marriage with Emma. Heiligman shows her readers why Emma was such a devoted Christian, why Charles couldn't believe like she did, and how they somehow met in the middle. We share their joy in the births of the children and their sorrow during death, up to the end of their own lives.

It is aimed at the young-adult reading level, and the writing was spot-on for that demographic, but I'm just wondering how many sixth-graders are going to want to read an entire 232-page book about Charles and Emma Darwin. It took me a while to get through it, and I'm in my 20s.

I did really enjoy how Heiligman delved into how the Darwins dealt with the fact that their spiritual beliefs differed so greatly, and yet they were so in love for the duration of their lives. It's a beautiful story, really. At the time I read it I could identify with some aspects of it too, and it really put my own situation into perspective.

Heiligman also does a wonderful job at characterizing these historical figures. We see Darwin's brilliance and his humor, his virtues as well as his faults; we see Emma's passion and devotion, her love and loyalty for her family. It's clear she wants her readers to get to know her subjects, instead of just learning about them.

All in all, this was a great biography for younger readers—the only problem was that it dragged a bit in some places for me, and so I immediately thought of how middle schoolers would take to it. Provided they can get through it, they'll certainly learn a lot about the Darwins and what they put themselves up against. I would even recommend this to adults who are interested in learning more about the famous couple.


  1. I am really curious about this book. As a biology major, I have a rather passionate love for Darwin. You might want to check out Into the Jungle by Sean Carroll. It is a trade book with stories about great evolutionary biologists. It's easy to read, very interesting, and will make you feel very well educated at the end!

  2. She handles it so well—it's a very different perspective than most other things I've read about him; it makes him very human. Thanks for the recommendation—I'll keep my eye out for it!


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