Thursday, February 12, 2009

Book Review: Charles and Emma

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman. (Grades 8+)

In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper... He was in his late twenties. It was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side, he wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question.

So begins Deborah Heiligman's portrait of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma. Charles did decide to marry, although he was afraid that it would take time away from his scientific work. In Emma he found a friend, a lover, a caretaker, and an editor. In quotes from the many letters the two wrote to each other, you can tell how much Charles and Emma meant to each other.

But there was one problem that plagued them throughout their marriage. Charles was working on the theory of evolution. Emma was devoutly religious. Charles doubted his faith. And Emma constantly worried that she would not meet up with her husband in the afterlife.

I had no idea Charles Darwin was so fascinating. He was a dedicated scientist as well as being a loving husband and father to ten children (seven of which survived to adulthood). He spent years researching and observing barnacles. He studied birds, orchids, and worms. He was driven to publish his work and start a dialogue on the theory of evolution, but he was wary of causing a firestorm of criticism from Christian believers.

This is a very readable biography that concentrates on a particular aspect of Charles Darwin's life - his relationship with his wife and family - and how it influenced him and his scientific work. Heiligman includes quote after quote from Charles's and Emma's letters to each other and to other friends and family members. The effect is that of postulated dialog, except that in this case it's their actual words.

Got kids coming in looking for narrative nonfiction? Hand them this book pronto. I'd also hand it to fans of Pride and Prejudice or other such classic lit. It's readable enough to be recreational, but it's factual and will work for research reports, too.

Pair it with a typical Darwin biography for those wanting to know more (might I suggest the DK biography?) and Peter Sis's intricate picture book biography The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin for a little something different. AND today happens to be the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday (not just Lincoln's!).

So, happy birthday, Mr. Darwin!

Be sure and check out the Bookslut column Celebrating Darwin and an SLJ interview with Deborah Heiligman: Meet the Darwins. Do check out Ms. Heiligman's fantastic website where you can learn more about her, check out what other books she's written, and see how she did her research (a lady after my own heart).