Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: Charles and Emma/The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Title: Charles and Emma/The Darwins' Leap of Faith
Author: Deborah Heiligman
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co., LLC
ISBN: 9780805087215
Starred reviews in: Booklist, SLJ

In 1838 London, Charles Darwin sat and considered marriage—using a pros and cons list. With the decision to marry resolved, and his father’s two cents sought, fate and family put Darwin in the path of cousin, Emma Wedgwood. The match, as presented by Heiligman (supported with excerpts from letters, journals and notes etc.) proved more than successful. Charles and Emma’s marriage was a loving one, supportive, full of compromise and full of children (they had 10 with 7 surviving). They suffered their share of grief and felt the weight of a continued underlying tension due to conflicting religious beliefs— mainly God’s role in creation and what follows death. As Darwin’s family grew, so did his controversial theories on evolution and natural selection. Theories he knew would not be happily received by the general public, many of his scientific peers and more personally, his wife whose religious beliefs were strengthened following the death of a much beloved sister. In a world influenced by religion, in a class system religion seemed to preserve and in a marriage where his generally, very open-minded wife feared they wouldn’t meet in heaven – Darwin forged ahead in his experiments, observations and his revolutionary writing.
Which, ultimately, Emma proofread, even if she didn’t agree.


Heiligman’s biography is engrossing, with excellent tone and pacing. The integration of historical facts and quotations do not stall the reader. While it’s not a full and comprehensive look at either spouse’s life it’s certainly engaging enough to pique the interest of readers. (Even, or especially, those not inclined to non-fiction or science…like myself.) It’s an introductory meeting with Darwin and his family, historical non-fiction that doesn’t suffer from dry or overwhelming information and it’s also a genuine romance. There’s more emphasis on the Darwins’ life than Charles’ scientific theories in detail. How those theories relate to his marriage, his family and vice versa. Included are source notes, a selected bibliography and a few images (i.e. a copy of that pros and cons list). I would very much like this title to be honored in some way.

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