Plot: After his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin has a hunch he’s on to something. In the midst of feverishly developing his theory of evolution, he realizes his deep-seated desire to start a family, and marries his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, a profoundly religious member of the Wedgewood pottery dynasty. Darwin becomes sick with anxiety about publishing his heretical scientific theory of evolution- an act akin to ‘murdering’ God and likely to destroy his marriage. This is the story of Darwin’s boundless passion for both his scientific ideals and his family. Set in Victorian England, this deeply personal love story, as told through diary excerpts and letters, helpfully places Darwin’s work in historical and social context.
Topics: Science – Biology – Evolution, Biography & Autobiography – Charles Darwin, 1809 – 1882 Juvenile Literature
Awards: National Book Awards Finalist; YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Winner; Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist; Booklist Top 10 Romances for Youth.
Review: It’s interesting to learn that Charles Darwin thought his nose was too big and bulbous; that it was common to marry your first cousin in certain circles in the 19th century; and that Darwin was a devoted father and husband who worried how his work would affect his family and the rest of society- but getting through all 268 pages of the details will require quite a commitment. Archaic language and Victorian-era social structures give the book an almost foreign feel. Young readers who enjoy historical romance titles will appreciate the Jane Austen references, while others may wish they could skip the romance and stick to the science.
Quantitative Reading Level: Lexile: 1020L, ATOS Book Level: 7.6, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 7.6, AR Interest Level: Middle Grade; AR Book Level: 7.6
Qualitative Reading Analysis: This book is fairly complex, with a rating of medium-high for knowledge demands, structure, meaning/purpose, and language features.
The central conflict of science vs. religion is clearly explicated through the main characters and the chronological plot, which illustrate how faith- in either materialism or spirituality- drives human motivation and action. Yet there are other subtle and interwoven concepts, including how the notion of ‘progress’ is culturally defined, and the idea that, like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, life is full of welcome and unwelcome changes.
Many readers will understand Darwin’s personal struggle to do what’s right and the inevitable contradictions that come with that pursuit: to ‘do right’ by himself, and for the sake of science, Darwin must publish his intellectual work, yet to do so, is to not ‘do right’ by his beloved wife, or by society in general: Darwin feels as if he is “confessing a murder” in a society that is held together by the belief in God as creator, and that he is pushing his marriage to the edge of its natural boundaries. Emma is also struggling to do what’s right by her own standards, and we are heartened to know that they somehow find a way to live with their convictions while maintaining a deep love and respect for each other. This aspect may help students see the ‘grey’ area in the science vs. religion debate, rather than simply reducing it to black and white/right and wrong.
What makes the book more complex, and perhaps less accessible is the setting, point of view, and language conventions. One would certainly need to understand the basics of natural selection and its significance to modern science in order to appreciate the book’s details of how it played out in the 19th century. Yet, making sense of those details could prove difficult, even for the scientifically knowledgeable student. The unfamiliar language of Victorian-era English excerpted from Darwin’s letters and diaries requires extra effort. Furthermore, it may be difficult for students to make a personal connection with any of the main characters, all of whom are adults (save for the very young children), with adults concerns of children, marriage and work.
Content/Subject Area & Standards: Middle School Life Science (Grade 7, 8): MS-LS4 Biological Evolution/Natural Selection and Adaptations. High School Science: HS-LS4 Biological Evolution/Natural Selection and Evolution
Curriculum Suggestions: This work could help contextualize middle and high school natural science curriculum covering biological evolution and natural selection, via a concurrent social science or history class. It would work equally well for ELA students studying biographies, reading in literature circles, or perhaps as a summer reading selection prior to 9th – 11th grade. Charles and Emma would be an ideal choice for a history of religion or a science and religion curriculum.
Links to Supporting Content:
Author Deborah Heiligman’s website – Tells how she went about doing her research. Includes a book trailer (video) and many links to relevant content.
Darwin’s Diary – web feature for in-depth viewing of Darwin’s diary and personal correspondence in three categories: his voyages aboard HMS Beagle, the publication of On the Origin of Species, and his inner struggle with his faith in God.
Evolving Ideas: Who Was Charles Darwin – 6 min video aimed at high school students.