Charles and Emma: the Darwins’ Leap of Faith
Deborah Heligman
2009
Printz Honor
National Book Award Finalist

This is a very thought-provoking and enjoyable read. It is nonfiction and, while written ostensibly for the young adult crowd, will be enjoyed by older teens and grown-ups alike. Charles and Emma chronicles Charles and Emma Darwin’s lives from the point at which he first entertains marriage through to end of Emma’s life (she outlives him by a number of years).

Did you know that Emma claimed to be a Christian? Did you know Charles had reservations about publishing such a controversial theory that would cause people (such as his wife) to doubt their faith? Did you know they had 10 children? Did you know he used his observations of his own children to flesh out some of his theories? Did you know he was not the only one thinking through the evolution of different species?

All in all, I think Heligman does a marvelous job with her subject matter. She shows Charles’ scientific drive as well as Emma’s Christian activities. I think the description of Emma’s faith reveals a very Romantic idea: rejection of the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the embracing of the loving God of the New Testament. Nevertheless, she is a faithful church goer her entire life and does not ever fully embrace Charles’ theories. Still, she is a faithful editor of all his published works and loving wife. Their marriage and family life is wonderful to read about.

I wish Heligman had offered more on the idea that evolution also requires a leap of faith as well as the allowance that the Christian religion isn’t completely without logic/reason. Nevertheless, this is a good read whether you side with Charles in his agnostic evolutionary theory or with Emma in her belief that God did indeed create our marvelous world.

Recommended for older teens and up.

Things to Note/Discuss:

  • How does Heligman treat the “Christian religion”? Is she positive towards it? Does it seem like she understand Christianity?
  • How does Heligman treat the theory of evolution? Does she seem to regard it as fact?
  • Would you want to live in the Darwins’ world? What surprises you about their lifestyle? What surprises you about their relationship?
  • Are you comfortable being friends with people who disagree with you? Why or why not? Why is it so hard to be friends with people who might disagree with you?
  • Do you think Emma addresses her concerns about Charles’ salvation in a right manner? How does she balance submission to her husband alongside speaking her mind and proclaiming the gospel?
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