by Paul Martin
For every great man remembered by history, hundreds of other heroes sleep beneath our radar and disappear from public awareness. They may not lead a battle charge to victory against overwhelming odds or set out across the sea to discover a new continent, but these men and women still impact millions through their contributions to society. Paul Martin readily admits that his new book, which profiles thirty of history's forgotten heroes, is barely scratching the surface – but the lives that he's uncovered and shared deserve recognition all the same.
He pulls men and women from all walks of life. One of his heroes is already famous, one of Hollywood's great stars from the golden age of film. But her acting wasn't her only skill; after retiring from the movies her talents in mathematics helped her co-invent a technique for frequency hopping and spread spectrum communications, a necessary step in the path toward wireless communication. Several humanitarians who worked towards alleviating poverty, eliminating child factory workers and womens' suffrage are profiled here. Scientists who led to medical and chemical advances are mentioned, too. Frequently, these figures are simply overshadowed by the men and women who followed in their footsteps. Many Americans have heard of the Navajo code talkers used during WWII to transmit battle messages; the number who know about the Chocktaw code talkers active two decades earlier in WWI is considerably smaller.
Some of his choices were a little controversial. In a pantheon of unsung American heroes that has only thirty places, I question his choice to include Captain Jack Crawford, the man largely responsible for creating the myth of the noble cowboy and the American West. The settlement of the American West figures largely in our popular culture, but I'm not sure we should celebrate a man whose fanciful accounts of his life out West no doubt contributed to the poor treatment of the Native peoples. In his chapter about Captain Jack, Martin writes, “In a dawn raid on a Sioux village, he rode among the Indians like a madman, his pistol blazing”. If he's attacking the village, it isn't just Indian warriors being hit by those bullets, but also women and children. That doesn't sound like the makings of a hero to me. Even if he did help to codify the legends of the Wild West, Captain Jack's accomplishments shouldn't be celebrated with the same enthusiasm as some of other folks in this book, who modernized battlefield medicine and tried to foil save a president from assassination.
For all that, this was a fun book, especially for trivia and history buffs. It really showcases why Americans can be so proud of their country and the people who live here. There are several men and women in this book that I want to investigate in greater detail, and I never would have known they existed were it not for Secret Heroes.
It was the perfect book to read on the eleventh anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.
4 out of 5 stars
To read more about Secret Heroes, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! by Fumi Yoshinaga
2010: When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuda
2008: Dress in Detail Around the World by Rosemary Crill & others