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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2009
I enjoyed reading this book. It gave me more inside information on Charles and his relationship with Emma. I think it humanizes Charles in a way many people may not see. Learning about the length of time he worked with his theories,the sensitivity toward his wife and her beliefs that he had, and reconciling his scientific ideas with his own religious beliefs, helped me to understand his struggle more. I believe middle and high school students could read and enjoy this book, and of course, adults. I think it is a bit too much for elementary students.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2009
This book blew me away. It has such ramifications for the world today. Not only does it reveal the little known love story between Charles and Emma Darwin, but it shows how two people with such differing viewpoints (Charles was a scientist and agnostic; Emma, deeply religious) made their marriage work. The characters leap off the page. The author includes such fascinating details - Darwin's fascination with barnacles and worms; the way orchids bend toward the light. The dog who didn't like visiting the green house because he wanted his walk! And oh, the man himself, who studied the small things of life - leading him to a revolutionary theory about the big. And how he died, after a long and fruitful life, in his loving wife's arms.

I loved it!
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2009
Few books offer as much human insight, inspiration, humor, and encouragement to enjoy science as this one. Heiligman has a sure touch as a biographer, using the telling remark or anecdote to flesh out the characters and explain their struggles, conflicts, and resolutions. Anyone who would like a short book on one of the world's great thinkers--and the conditions of home life that allowed him to prosper intellectually--can do no better than this. The tension between religion and science as Heiligman explains the Darwins' marriage and personal faith just adds to this engrossing story. Superb!
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2010
The Scopes Monkey Trial, in which Spencer Tracy squared off against Fredric March (whoops! Make that Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan) was dubbed the Trial of the Century, and 85 years later, the controversy about evolution continues to smolder. My guess is that the one-half of the U.S. population (yes, one half) that still cannot comprehend and/or accept natural selection would ordinarily have little interest in the marriage of a man whose name is anathema to them. On the flip side, those who find themselves on a mission to lift high the bright torch of science in order to rout the shadows of ignorance might pass over this book as probably being too soft in texture to provide cocktail party ammunition, or essay bullet points. Deborah Heiligman's brief and wonderful book Charles and Emma extends this invitation to both of the above groups: check your religious and/or scientific urgencies at the door, come on in, settle into your most comfortable reading spot with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and enjoy a wonderful story about enduring love between a man and a woman.

Charles and Emma, though a non-fiction book, paints the world of the Darwins with all the beauty, exquisite detail, and polish of the best historical novels. Far from a dry tome, in short order one can FEEL what it was like to live in the early to mid-1800's, and more than one reviewer has noted that flavors of Jane Austen percolate through the book. I would add bits of Charles Dickens, and even a bit of Melville while Heiligman describes the incredible voyage that Charles took on the Beagle to the Galapagos. What is completely absent is the harsh, occasionally cringe-inducing ferocity of a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Jay Gould (both of whom I have the highest respect for).

Charles and Emma had been together for 42 years when, true to the traditional wedding vow, death did them part. Heiligman's charming and informative tracing of their courtship and marriage is all the more delightful for the distinct homage that she pays to the intellectual liveliness and capacity of the very accomplished Emma Darwin. Intrinsic to the romance was the longing of both Emma and Charles to find a life partner that could provide romantic passion AND a passion for knowledge and understanding of the world that they lived in. How did Emma, deeply convinced of the existence of a loving and personal God, deal with a husband that was just as deeply convinced otherwise? Ah. The answer to that is one of the more moving tales in the book.

My wife and I are closing in on the length of time that Charles and Emma had together. We've been fortunate in life in many ways, but none of the good fortune that we've had is more treasured than having someone to move through life with while sharing both a wealth of ideas, and a generous measure of passion. Heliegman's portrayal of the survival of a deeply loving relationship despite ill health, unending controversy and, at times, social and religious condemnation, is both heartening and inspiring to me.

A small tale to end this review: I once interviewed a woman for a job that involved considerable responsibility. "What do you do" I asked, "when you find yourself having to deal with turmoil and controversy?" "I build a rock, and then I stand on it" she replied (she got the job). Heiligman builds two rocks in this book, and stands on them. The first rock is the theory that made Charles Darwin famous. The depth, beauty, and astounding brilliance of his theories are not ignored in this book. Gently but firmly, the author convincingly describes the path to the door of publishing On the Origin of Species, the opening of that door, and the stepping into a world forever changed by a radical new perspective. The second rock is this: though it may not be doable, desirable, or even wise for many, two people CAN form an intellectual and romantic bond that can last a lifetime. The scientist in me, and the romantic in me, likes that notion very, very much.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2008
Deborah Heiligman takes us inside the Darwin household to see how Charles's relationship with his wife, Emma, and their children informed his scientific theories. Very readable for the young adult and even older adult audience :-) An enjoyable and informative read. The family dynamics have grabbed my heart.. i hate finish it
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2009
Picked for a book club read, not realizing it was geared toward a younger audience. Several of us really enjoyed it, though we all found the writing style very simple (just right to include the younger audience.) You get to know Darwin as "Charles", a husband and father, a human being in the context of a family; and are charmed and touched by his relationship with them. And the story of how his discoveries effected his beliefs and thus his relationships with those he loved most, keeps you enthralled, especially for people who have experienced the effects of differences in belief in their personal relationships with those they love, who have the context of the full depth of their emotions to draw from when they are only hinted at in the book. It follows the story of his relationship with Emma and family life from it's start to the ends of their lives, and his scientific work in the context of his daily life with his family. Simple and understated, drawing the picture from the historical sources, some in our book club longed for more, and it certainly could have been made more exciting as historical fiction, where you could have gotten inside their heads a bit more, but I find a beauty in the story told as simply as it was. When differences in belief so often spark contention that tears people apart, I found this a beautiful story of triumph of love for our fellow beings, in a striking place: one of the first couples to have felt the impact of the theory of evolution.

I came away with greater respect for Darwin most deeply because of this one thing: his care and respect for the feelings of those whose religious devotion was disturbed by his theories. When after his death, Emma edited out certain passages of his personal writings, which were not intended by him to go public, because she said she thought people would take them the wrong way, at first you may think she is trying to clean up what she doesn't agree with. But I get the feeling from what you learn about the two, that more likely she knew that Charles didn't like offending and hurting people, and was more likely to withhold a thought of his that might be taken as being disrespectful or in mean spirit to others who held contradictory cherished beliefs. Not that he didn't feel justified in his beliefs, but that he would take the utmost care that others would not perceive the slightest mean spirit or disrespect in his intent.

One thing that struck me was how being part of a distinctly upper class, the life Darwin led that enabled him to devote his time to his studies, was surely starkly different than the lives and constraints of those in the working and poorer classes. While this was not a theme brought out at all in the book (appropriately, as this was not the scope of the book), I couldn't help become aware of it while reading the account of what his daily life and home was like.

Seeing Darwin's studies in the context of his home life, and ordinary daily musings and observations of the things around him, can also be a great model for the young scientists among us.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2009
I have been interested in Charles Darwin and his ideas ever since I took an Anthropology class my freshmen year in college. I rarely read non-fiction books (outside of memoirs) but CHARLES AND EMMA: THE DARWIN'S LEAP OF FAITH by Deborah Heiligman definitely intrigued me. This book explores the relationship between Darwin, the man behind the concept of evolution, and his wife Emma who was a woman with very strong religious convictions. I thought the idea of a book that examines their relationship might be interesting to read. Plus it was a book geared for children ages 12 and up, so I thought I probably wouldn't have any problems understanding the science in it!

I have to admit that when I first picked up this book, I wasn't sure it was for me; however, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it. I thought the science parts were interesting and didn't bog down the reader with a lot of technical jargon -- the explanations were clear and easy to understand. And, I really liked learning about the Darwins' marriage and their children.

What I like most about this book were the parts about Charles and Emma and how they handled their differences in faith. From all accounts, their marriage seemed to be very strong and they certainly respected each other (although Emma did fear that Darwin's beliefs may keep him from heaven.) I thought it was fascinating how they reconciled such a huge difference in their marriage.

I really enjoyed learning more about Darwin as a man. While there is no doubt that he was an absolutely brilliant scientist, he also seemed to be such a sensitive man and caring father. He adored his wife as evidenced by his correspondence with her when they were apart, and it seemed like he managed to find time to play with his children despite his busy work schedule. I am amazed by how productive he was since he spent much of his time seriously ill. I truly believe that his frailties were compounded by the stress he incurred with his very controversial scientific discoveries.

I think high school aged children would probably appreciate this book more than younger ones. It isn't a difficult book to read, but it is a little on the long side (around 250 pages.) It most definitely will appeal to children who are interested in science and Darwin's ideas because some parts of the book do go into detail about his observations and writings. That's not to say that some readers will also enjoy the more biographical parts of the story as well as the love affair between Darwin and his wife.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2009
What a refreshing book! After all that's been written about Charles Darwin it's hard to believe that any new slant on this genius's life could be mined. But author, Deborah Heiligman, has found her way by giving us a bird's eye view into the love story between Charles and his devout wife Emma. Though science and religion are important keys to Charles and Emma's lives, Heiligman wisely uses a conversational tone, full of wit and humor, that keeps the pacing at the right level for middle grade and high school readers. What makes this a stand out read is the author's deft hand with details which she uses to paint a vivid picture of 19th century England. I loved that she starts out with a list young Darwin made of the pro's and con's of marriage! Not exactly Mr. Spontanious, but his loyalty to Emma and his children never wavered.
What also comes through is the author's sympathy for two people of such opposing views, who somehow manage to come together and actually thrive. It really is a testament to the strength of their love when you read about their many struggles and heartbreaks within their own family. It's biography at it's best.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2009
This is a loving tribute to an unusual couple. This book looks at how Charles Darwin came to be the noted scientist and originator of the theory of evolution with the help of his devoted and loving wife Emma. Emma Wedgewood Darwin was intelligent, outspoken, lively, fun and most of all, a firm believer of Faith. Though it took Charles many years and a pro/con list to decide on marriage, he knew that his cousin Emma was the perfect wife for him. For 43 years Charles and Emma discussed and debated, read and wrote about issues of religion and science. Though their personal views differed, each understood and respected the other's viewpoint and never attacked, argued or criticized. They were best friends and companions through childbirth, death, ill health, and scientific explorations. This book gives the reader a peek into the Darwins' world and illustrates the true partnership of Charles and Emma. The book deals with Charles' explorations, scientific discoveries and questions of Faith as well as his personal life as a caring and devoted husband and father. What most impressed me was that though they had different religious beliefs, Charles and Emma remained a loving couple. The writing style is casual enough for young adults and lively and interesting enough for adults to enjoy as well. This is a great companion to the above book and takes the reader on an incredible journey of love. Again, it doesn't matter whether you believe in evolution, this is a portrait of a man and his wife who loved each other and stood by each other for 43 years despite their differences. Incredible!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2014
Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman is exceptional.

As a fan of science writing, biography, historical settings, and young adult literature, I felt like Charles and Emma was written just for me. The religious issues along with the romantic aspects brought drama to what might have otherwise been a traditional biography. The religious and romantic elements might also move some fiction readers toward nonfiction. Many adult biographies can be academic and dry, so I enjoyed the simple language, conversational style, and topical emphasis of this book written for young adults. I don't normally think of biographies as "page turners," but the story was a really "quick read."

Heiligman wove interesting primary source materials and stories into the book. I particularly enjoyed the "to marry" and "no to marry" list. I could relate to this very analytical approach. I could also connect to his obsession with "knowing everything" about a particular topic such as his species studies.

Combining the stories of Charles and Emma made the book unique. As I read the story I wondered about the impact of spouses on other scientists. I'd like to see other books taking this approach to biography.

So much of YA literature focuses on realistic fiction (teen angst and melodrama) and fantasy (vampires, werewolves, dystopia) that it's great to see a book written for nerdy teens like I was! In publisher's quest for "high profit" books, they often forget that there's a market for engaging biographies, readable nonfiction, and quality storytelling outside traditional fiction categories. This book will never get the readership of the Twilight series, but there are teens in the world that aspire to be naturalists, scientists, and scholars that are thirsty for books like this.

One sign of an exceptional book is the degree to which I think about the book later. Darwin seems to be everywhere I look. Darwin's 200th birthday was Feb 12 2010.

I've always respected Charles Darwin for the many years he spent researching and reflecting on his theories before publishing. He truly wanted to "get it right." His approach to science and the development of arguments is a great example of critical thinking.

There are some great websites devoted to his work. You can also visit Darwin's countryside on Google Earth. For a great overview with images go to

Want to learn more? Go to

Beyond the book...

I think it's important to introduce biography and Charles Darwin to children. For younger readers, I'd suggest the beautifully illustrated picture book "One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin" by Kathryn Lasky as a great introduction to Charles Darwin.

For teens who enjoy this book, I'd recommend moving into quality adult nonfiction such as Erick Larson's The Devil in the White City, Isaac's Storm, or Thunderstruck.

I enjoy reading about naturalists from the 1500s through the 1900s. For an engaging biography that takes place in the late 1600s, read "A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier" by Diana Preston.

The biographies of Linda Lear would be a great way to introduce young adults scholars to adult literature. Read Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature or Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

Okay, so now you know I'm a nerd. We need more nerds in the world!
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