Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sexy Nonfiction

Two weeks ago the ALA awards were announced and I finally got around to ordering and reading a book I've wanted to get to all fall - Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, nominated for a National Book award and winner of the inauguaral YALSA Nonfiction award.

Great. But by now, you might be wondering, Claire, does award-winning make it sexy? No, the opening does. Ron wrote about hooks, Ann about first chapters. Try this one.

In the summer of 1838 ... Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper. . . He was in his late twenties. it was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question.

Many of us have been in that spot. Many teens may be wondering if they ever will.

Hundreds of books have been written about Darwin, including his own Evolution of Species, published in 1859, twenty-one years after his wedding. But none have ever focused on Darwin's relationship with his devout Christian wife Emma. The book is a marvel. Not only does it reveal the challenges of faith for them both, but also the 20+ years that Charles worked on his epic book, his scientific process and the family life swirling around him. It reads like a great novel. Indeed they do marry. But the promise revealed in the first chapter is carried all the way through. How can you love someone who doesn't believe like you do?
Charles put off publishing his historic book for many years for fear of its reception in Christian England, but also for fear of what it would do his family. Christian Emma supported non-believer Charles every step of the way, in spite of worrying that they would not be together in eternal happiness. The book with every revision became stronger and so did their relationship. Emma was no whimpering wife; she outlived Charles by twenty years.

Heiligman's personal narrative arc in writing this book is that she was a religious studies major in college who married a scientist. In her acknowledgements she says she never would have written this book without the years of their marriage, and myriad discussions about the intersection of religion and science.

Try some sexy nonfiction. You'll like it. Oh, by the way, there is an epigraph or quote at the start of every chapter, quotes from Darwin's book, and quotes from those who knew Charles and Emma. Selectively and lightly done. I marvel how are blog posts draw on each other.


  1. Holy cow. Talk about alignment of stars, or whatever. I just completed the first draft of a scene in my work in progress--a "Then what do you believe in, Mother?" conversation between the scientist mother and the born-again teen daughter.

    Charles and Emma will go to the top of my list of books to read when I'm done with my story; I need my characters to be having their own conversations.

  2. There it is again. That amazing creative force swirling in and around and through us, helping us to see connections and weave their artistic threads into a fine tapestry.

  3. This is a great example of no matter how many times a story is told, it can still be told again differently, with new meaning. I wonder if Darwin's story has been retold as many times as Cinderella.

  4. I love history of science--partly because my husband was a history of science PhD candidate, and he turned me on to it--and love this book for showing the blood racing in a subject most people (wrongly!) consider bloodless. For further evidence of heat, read Andrea Barrett's history-of-science based novels and short stories. Super sexy.

  5. We're going to read this book for StorySleuths next month--I'm looking forward to it, and I hope those of you who have read it will come to the blog and add your comments about the writing. We're also going to read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which incorporates a bit of Darwin into the story along with epigraphs as well.

    As for Charles and Emma... I saw that there is now a movie about their relationship, called Creation, with one of my favorite actors, Paul Bettany and his real-life wife Jennifer Connelly. Has anyone seen it?

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Claire. I was instantly smitten with Charles and Emma when it came out (being the complete sucker for love stories). It is a truly fabulous story with many hooks, suspense and emotional content, and yes, love. Yay for sexy NF!

  7. I'll look for the movie, Heather. I like those actors. I've also read the Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and found her voice strong, giving it Lisa's well put "emotional content." The investigation of a plant species with her grandfather plotline was great, but I felt like the Darwin epigraphs overdone and I skipped many of them. I always wonder what young and teen readers think of these books, not just us adults.

  8. Hi Claire--
    I agree with your point about the epigraphs in Calpurnia Tate, especially if, as a middle grade reader, you don't know much about Darwin's theories. The quotes may note make much sense.

    I've been reading Inkheart aloud to my daughter--every chapter starts with a very long quote, and I skip them all. They detract from the story.

    Still, I can see how as a writer, the epigraphs might help you give focus to a particular chapter... maybe once the story is written, though, they can come out.