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Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith Hardcover – January 6, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Grade 8 Up—Beginning with Darwin's notorious chart listing reasons to wed and not to wed, Heiligman has created a unique, flowing, and meticulously researched picture of the controversial scientist and the effect of his marriage on his life and work. Using the couple's letters, diaries, and notebooks as well as documents and memoirs of their relatives, friends, and critics, the author lets her subjects speak for themselves while rounding out the story of their relationship with information about their time and place. She shows how Darwin's love for his intelligent, steadfast, and deeply religious cousin was an important factor in his scientific work—pushing him to document his theory of natural selection for decades before publishing it with great trepidation. Just as the pair embodied a marriage of science and religion, this book weaves together the chronicle of the development of a major scientific theory with a story of true love. Published for young adults, this title will be equally interesting to adults drawn to revisit Darwin on his 200th birthday.—Ellen Heath, Easton Area Public Library, Easton, PA
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*Starred Review* When the book opens, Charles Darwin is trying to make a decision, and he is doing so in time-honored fashion: drawing a line down a piece of paper and putting the pros of marriage on one side and the cons on the other. As much as Darwin is interested in wedded life, he is afraid that family life will take him away from the revolutionary work he is doing on the evolution of species. However, the pluses triumph, and he finds the perfect mate in his first-cousin Emma, who becomes his comforter, editor, mother of his 10 children—and sparring partner. Although highly congenial, Charles and Emma were on opposite sides when it came to the role of God in creation. Heiligman uses the Darwin family letters and papers to craft a full-bodied look at the personal influences that shaped Charles’ life as he worked mightily to shape his theories. This intersection between religion and science is where the book shines, but it is also an excellent portrait of what life was like during the Victorian era, a time when illness and death were ever present, and, in a way, a real-time example of the survival of the fittest. Occasionally hard to follow, in part because of the many characters (the family tree helps), this is well sourced and mostly fascinating, and may attract a wider audience than those interested in science. Austen fans will find a romance to like here, too. To be illustrated with photographs. Grades 8-12. --Ilene Cooper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); First Edition edition (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805087214
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805087215
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #512,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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).
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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