Lacey Librarian's Reviews > Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith

Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman
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May 24, 12

bookshelves: at-library, non-fiction

I wavered between giving this book a high three stars or a low four stars, and I think I wouldn't have enjoyed it so much if I hadn't read it at the point in my life which I did. But as it was, I listened to it the month before the wedding, at a time when I was especially hungry to learn about how other couples had made sense of spending a lifetime together. And I was astounded by how much Charles and Emma's love story mirrored my own (at least the beginning of it, which is all I can speak for right now). Charles was hesitant about whether to marry because he feared it would distract him from his work. Charles and Emma married later in life (especially for that time), and Emma was older than Charles (31 and 30, if I recall correctly). Emma loved her life as a single woman and felt great sadness over moving away from her family, with whom she was very close.

And yet, none of that spelled doom for their marriage. Once in, they seemed fully in, and demonstrated a commitment that was able to withstand the death of children, illness, Charles' obsession with his work, and most of all, a difference in religious opinions -- Charles struggled with whether he believed in God and did not attend Church, while Emma held onto a firm belief in God, especially as a comfort against the deaths of loved ones she had endured.

Although this book focuses on Charles' home life and family, I learned a lot about the political and intellectual climate surrounding the release of his theory on Natural Selection, too. Perhaps most significant was the realization that others were releasing very similar theories at the same time, and it really was a "race to the finish line" in some ways; things could have very easily gone differently and we'd associate someone else's name with evolution, natural selection, and all the controversy that surrounds it.

Raised as a Catholic, I was never expected to "choose" between belief in a Creative God and evidence of natural selection (although recently some of Darwin's theories have come under question from a purely scientific standpoint, that's neither here nor there). But after reading this book, I feel convinced that the reason religious fundamentalists object so strongly to natural selection and evolutionary theories is not because the theories themselves inherently deny God -- indeed, to me they seem to speak as much to a master plan as anything -- but because Charles Darwin himself had so much doubt in God. It's sad that so many people would let a man's internal struggles color how "valid" his science should be accepted to be.

There were a few times when the book dragged on a bit, lingering over certain details than was necessary or telling one too many anecdotes about the Darwin families, and this tendency annoyed me more in the second half of the book, when more if it felt like rehashing. But still, it's a solid, enlightening, and captivating read -- it's too bad that it will probably be overlooked by most in its target audience (teens) due to their preference for novels. Still, it may surprise teens who pick it up for research with its relevance to the human experience and moral questions that we still face.

This book is well paired with the movie, "Creation," which covers Darwin's life faithfully and with sensitivity. (Although if I hadn't read the book first, I think I would have been confused at some points during the movie, such as Darwin's dedication to taking "water treatments," a bit of medical quackery that I'd never heard about prior to reading this.)
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