Wednesday, March 31, 2010

THEME: Charles & Emma

When we read Claire Rudolf Murphy’s passionate recommendation for Charles and Emma on The Storyteller’s Inkpot, a blog produced by faculty members of Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, we were curious to learn more so we invited Claire to join our conversation about the book here.

Dear Heather,

Since I raved about Charles and Emma a few weeks ago on our Hamline blog, The Storyteller’s Inkpot, you invited me to write a post for your blog this month. This book did indeed knock my socks off. I even called it sexy. Sexy in that it grabs you from the first page with Charles Darwin’s thoughts of marriage and keeps you focused, turning pages. Many of us adults have been in that marriage quandary. Teen readers may be wondering if they ever will.

Hundreds of books have been written about Darwin, including his own The Origin 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. And that is what makes this book high concept nonfiction. 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?

So Heather, when you asked me to post more reflections on this book, I am now several weeks removed from my first study of it. I so admire the way all three of you have discussed and dissected craft in this and other books and included tips for writers of all ages. My discussion is more wide-ranging, but mainly it focuses on theme, the heart of the book and where it came from.

What has stayed with me is how relevant this book’s theme still is today. We still live in a culture of believers and nonbelievers, evolutionists and creationists. If Charles and Emma figured out how to live and love peacefully, then can’t we all respect our differences? It’s gotten so ugly, even violent nowadays.

Heiligman found her theme for Darwin’s life by exploring his relationship with something she cared passionately about - religion. A religious studies' major in college, she’s been thinking and studying about religion and spirituality for decades.

Some editors would say, “Steer away from such a controversial topic. We don’t want to turn off readers.” But don’t we all respect a fair debate, a meeting of the minds or not? That’s what Heiligman presents for us readers – a way to disagree and still get along. She confronts the elephant in the room, and readers like me are cheering her on.

Modern politics and religion have lost this polite discourse, and we are the poorer for it. It’s often said that a writer’s perspective on history is influenced more by the culture of her day, than by the historical setting she is writing about.

What about the rest of your readers? Did it hit you the same way? Wow – Heiligman takes on this hot topic subject that we’re still going at today and likely will until the end of human time.

Maybe one aspect that makes this tricky subject readable is that Darwin didn’t ram his beliefs down his wife’s throat. He waited twenty years to publish it, for fear of its reception in Christian England, and what it would do to his family. Christian Emma supported non-believer Charles every step of the way, in spite of worrying that they would not be together in heaven. But in the end, it wasn’t the big issue of religion that challenged them the most, but rather illness and death and the small challenges of daily life.

By waiting and revising over that many years, Darwin’s book became stronger, and so did their relationship. What a lesson for us all. Give it time – whether a book, a loved one, a cause we believe in.

Not only was Heiligman a religious studies major, she met her scientist husband in college. In her acknowledgements she notes that she never would have written this book without the years of discussions between them about the intersection between religion and science. She couldn’t have written that high concept nonfiction book without her own life experiences.

I believe that is what we are asked to do as writers: tap deeply into what we know about people and life at such a deep level that it rings true for readers, whether fiction or nonfiction. Maybe not for twenty years, but time enough for the story to season and grow.


Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of seventeen books of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults, including Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock; Daughters of the Desert: Remarkable Women of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions; Children of the Gold Rush and the upcoming picture book Susan B., Mama and B. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and is a member of the Hamline University MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults faculty. You can learn more about her books at

StorySleuths Tip #58: Tap deeply into what we know about people and life at such a deep level that it rings true for readers, whether fiction or nonfiction.