HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Runner Of The Mountain Tops: The Life Of Louis Agassiz
Author: Mabel L Robinson
Illustrator: Lynd Ward
Publisher: Andesite Press, republished 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1297836619 Hardcover
ISBN-10: 1297836618 Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-1406768022 Paperback
ISBN-10: 1406768022 Paperback
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 12-16
Rating: ***** 5 stars
(5 stars=EXCELLENT; 4 stars=GOOD; 3 stars=FAIR; 2 stars=POOR; 1 star=VERY POOR; no stars=NOT RECOMMENDED)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Robinson, Mabel L. Runner Of The Mountain Tops: The Life Of Louis Agassiz (published in 1939 by Random House, New York City, NY). Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873) was a Swiss-American biologist and geologist recognized as an innovative and prodigious scholar of Earth’s natural history. Agassiz was born in Môtier (now part of Haut-Vully) in the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. The son of a minister, Agassiz grew up in Switzerland, and was educated first at home. Then he spent four years of secondary school in Bienne, entering in 1818 and completing his undergraduate studies in Lausanne. Following that, he studied at and received Doctor of Philosophy and medical degrees from Erlangen and Munich, respectively. After studying with Cuvier and Humboldt in Paris, Agassiz was appointed professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel. He visited Harvard University mid-career and emigrated to the United States in 1847, becoming a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, where he headed its Lawrence Scientific School and founded its Museum of Comparative Zoology. Known for his regimen of observational data gathering and analysis, Agassiz made vast institutional and scientific contributions to zoology, geology, and related areas, including writing multi-volume research books running to thousands of pages. He is particularly known for his contributions to ichthyological classification, including of extinct species, and to the study of geological history, including to the founding of glaciology.
This children’s biography of Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century paleontologist and natural scientist, written by Mabel Robinson and illustrated by Lynd Ward, which tells his life story from his boyhood in Switzerland to his professorship at Harvard, was first published in 1939 and was a Newbery Honor recipient in 1940. In the 1930s, quite a few Newbery honor books and even a medal winner were biographies, such as A Daughter of the Seine: The Life of Madame Roland by Jeanette Eaton; The Railroad To Freedom: A Story of the Civil War (about Harriet Tubman) by Hildegarde Swift; Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs; Davy Crockett by Constance Rourke; Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray; Audubon by Constance Rourke; Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot by Jeanette Eaton; and Penn by Elizabeth Janet Gray. Mabel Robinson also won a Newbery honor award in 1938 for Bright Island. Agassiz is someone that most people don’t know. The book contains some references to smoking tobacco, drinking alcoholic beverages, and dancing. As is often true of biographies for youth written during this time period Robinson invents dialogue and ascribes emotions to the characters that are somewhat fictionalized. However, the book is certainly interesting, and Louis Agassiz is fascinating to learn about.
One reason that Agassiz is hardly mentioned today is that while he was a contemporary with Charles Darwin he resisted Darwinian evolution. Agassiz was an intensely religious man. “Louis had a background and training which had made him profoundly religious. He had faith in God’s intentions in regard to himself as well as to the rest of the world. He never lost that faith” (p. 54). As a result, Darwin’s “Beagle voyage would bring him ideas of evolution to which the religion of Agassiz would never let him agree” (p. 108), and “Agassiz remained convinced to the end of his life that the great groups of the animal kingdom were specially created” (p. 208). Good for Agassiz! The author, who seems to favor Darwin in this matter, tries to gloss over this distinct difference by saying, “It is not unlikely that if the two young men had been able to work together for a while, Darwin could have modified Agassiz’s conviction about special creation. For both of them sought the truth” (p. 149). No, I’m sorry, but Darwin wasn’t just seeking the truth. He was actually seeking a way to explain life on earth apart from and without God. Louis Agassiz wasn’t a perfect man, as Robinson shows, but he was a brilliant man who did much to advance our understanding of natural history and geology. His story is written in a somewhat indulgent tone that describes his life with both his successes and his failings in such a way that makes him seem charming.