Monday, August 16, 2010

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

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heligman's new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

Written with wit that’ll have you occasionally chuckling, and prose that brings the setting alive, Charles and Emma is a biography that reads as easy as a novel—no dull or boring tome in sight! This is due to Heiligman’s skill as much as the Darwins’ engaging personalities. This biography paints them (delightfully) as real people; to be honest, given Charles Darwin’s reputation as a revolutionary thinker and scientist, I was expecting a dry old man with very little personality. Through Heiligman’s pen he is transformed into someone lively, in constant high spirits with an insatiable curiosity, one who was also a devoted father and husband.

I was also prejudiced against Emma Darwin (or Wedgwood, as she was before her marriage)--given the literal portrait that was drawn of her in the summary, I was expecting someone overly zealous about religion, someone who forced it upon others. But once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Emma Darwin is a lovely woman; strong, she didn’t want to be a mere decoration (unlike the practically mute wife of a colleague of Charles, Mrs. Lyell) and wanted to participate in Charles’s life, whether his ideas terrified her or not, whether it went against her religious beliefs or not. Their relationship was natural, with its ups and downs, tragedies and comedies—but through it all, you can definitely see the genuine love shine through.

This is a gem of a biography, which includes pictures of interest (namely the family, their humble abodes, and Charles’ quirky marriage list). There are also snippets of Charles’s own observations sprinkled throughout the text, which pretty much had me wanting to reserve a copy of On the Origin of Species! Heiligman also mentions novels and interests of the day, which I thought was an effective way to involve readers. She also compares Charles and Emma to well-known works such as Pride and Prejudice (had me clamouring to get the book!) and nicely enough, Emma. This biography is a great way to introduce children and young adults to the life of an exceptional man—and to an exceptional love that transcends their beliefs.

Charles and Emma: the Darwins’ Leap of Faith is a delightful read, warm with the author’s energy. I think this was the first biography I ever read; and if all biographies are truly written in this style, then it most certainly won’t be the last. For this, I reward this book a rating of 4.5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5