Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman--Timetoast

Bibliography: Heiligman, D. (2009). Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ leap of faith. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Summary: Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary treatise on evolution, in 1859. Even today, the theory of evolution creates tension between the scientific and religious communities. This same debate raged within Darwin himself and played an important part in his marriage: Emma’s faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on his controversial theory.

This biography of Charles Darwin takes a personal look at the man behind evolutionary theory. His children doubled as scientific specimens, and his wife’s religious convictions made him rethink how the world would receive his ideas. What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant man, a radical science, and a great love (Henry Holt and Company).

Tool: Timetoast

Timetoast is an incredibly easy-to-use timeline tool that results in a clean presentation. Simply create a new timeline, and add your events. Each event requires a title, date, and description, and the user can choose whether or not to upload images. Because each event has a character count, users must be thrifty with their words in the descriptions, and each date must be exact--no approximating allowed. For example, rather than "Summer 2010," users must specify "June 21, 2010," which means that some information is going to be a little debatable. Other than this minor setback, Timetoast is a great tool to use with biographies (see below), histories, "About Me" projects, etc. Run your mouse across the final product to pull up events, and click on them to read the descriptions.

Review: Charles Darwin: both the man and his theories on natural selection have been misunderstood and hotly debated since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. In Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, Deborah Heiligman provides a human connection to the scientist by writing a unique biography not on his life but on his 43-year marriage to his wife, Emma. Using the Darwins’ personal correspondence, diaries, and Charles’s observational notebooks, Heiligman examines the relationship between a self-proclaimed agnostic naturalist and a devout Christian and how their mutual love and respect enabled them to create a strong partnership despite their differences in religious beliefs.

While the book chronicles 43 years, the first half of the Darwins’ marriage receives the greatest treatment; indeed, the publication of The Origin of Species warrants only a few chapters. This organization is probably due to the couple’s acceptance of each others' differences after so many years, whereas in the beginning of their relationship, acceptance took more work and more worry, resulting in more story. The information is presented chronologically in short chapters using a simple narrative style (Victorian quotations aside), making it easy, and therefore enjoyable, to absorb.

The subject matter is not altogether serious. Because Heiligman uses the Darwins’ personal prose as the foundation of her research, she is able to inject much of their humor into their biography, which is integral to her goal of separating the man from the myth. In the first chapter, for example, Charles, newly returned from his historic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, makes a pros and cons list entitled “Marry/Not Marry: This is the Question.” On the “Marry” side, he writes, “better than a dog anyhow.” (A photograph of this list, along with others, is included in an insert.) Admirably, Heiligman rarely attempts to “get at” her subjects’ hidden motives: she provides facts and primary sources and leaves conjecturing to her readers.

While intended for a young adult audience (and winner of the YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award, as well as being a Printz Honor book and a National Book Award Finalist), the story should be appealing to adults as well. By focusing on the marriage rather than the man, Heiligman succeeds in personalizing Charles and Emma beyond mere theories and convictions, and by the end of the book, readers feel that they have just spent a rather pleasant afternoon playing backgammon and conversing with their new friends, the Darwins. Grades 8+.

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