Monday, July 9, 2012

Secret Heroes, by Paul Martin

History, at least on the high school level, is often taught as a series of dates and names to be memorized. But history comes alive in stories, and often the most interesting stories are not those of the “great men” whose names were choices on your ninth-grade American History test.

Paul Martin recognizes the value of stories in the telling of history, and he tells thirty of them in Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World. Martin uses a tripartite structure in the book, dividing it into three sections: Voyagers, Innovators, and Humanitarians. Each hero’s story is eight to ten pages long, long enough to provide necessary context but short enough to seem like an extended anecdote rather than (gasp) a history text.

Not all of Martin’s “secret” heroes were unknown to me, but most were. I enjoyed the book; Martin is an excellent storyteller, so that even if the hero was not immediately interesting to me, Martin’s telling soon made him/her so. Highlights for me included Hercules Mulligan, Irish tailor and spy for General Washington’s forces during the Revolutionary War; Solomon Louis, Choctaw Code Talker from World War I; and Gertrude Elion, pioneering female scientist who eventually was awarded a (shared) Nobel Prize in Medicine.

My only complaint is that, within his three sections, heroes are not presented chronologically. The jump from colonial era to twentieth-century was a bit jarring for my tastes. Others may quarrel with Martin’s political biases seeping through, particularly in the “Humanitarians” section—both in his choices of heroes and his occasional editorializing about their lives/deeds. But I like a voice and a stance in my writers, and writing history without bias is either a) an exercise in hiding that bias or b) an exceedingly dry litany of dates and names (see my introduction).

I am forever searching for nonfiction material both appropriate for and appropriately challenging for high school students. (Publishers: we have a huge need for secondary-level nonfiction.) Secret Heroes helps fill that gap with clear, engaging writing and content, whether read as a whole or in parts.

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