A collection of essays on heroes from battle grounds, palaces, and even movie sets, Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and De Gaulle, edifies and entertains. It’s not intended to replace a biography that reports all the achievements and experiences a person has, but rather to add little known facts and round out the readers’ understanding of a noteworthy person.

Johnson begins with four Biblical figures: Deborah, Judith, Samson and David. (Moses is first mentioned, but mainly to set the stage for the later heroes. You do need to acknowledge Moses if you’re going to talk about Jewish heroes, don’t you?) Johnson provides the context for each hero, e.g. the conflict between the Jews and the Caanites or Philistines, before explaining the consequence and character of a hero like Deborah known for wisdom and courage, whose prophesy and collaboration with General Barak enabled the Hebrews to defeat Sisera. Considering women’s limited role in most ancient cultures, it’s astounding that Barak and many other would follow or seek out Deborah’s advice. She must have been extraordinary.

I enjoyed the nuggets of wit and the personal details Johnson includes as he shares the life stories of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Boudica, a Celtic queen who led a revolt against the Romans, Margaret Thatcher, whom Johnson worked with, Pope John Paul I, Elizabeth I, Lady Grey, Mary Queen of Scots, Emily Dickenson, Jane Carlyle, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and more. While I’m still not convinced that Marilyn Monroe belongs in a book on heroes, I appreciate Johnson’s argument that she does as a victim-heroine. I would not have considered Mae West a heroine, but after Johnson explained West’s business savvy, I do. Throughout Heroes made me think, even if he didn’t always convince.

Whether I agreed with Johnson on whom he included, I did learn more about each hero and increased my understanding and in some cases sympathy for these people. I enjoyed Johnson’s writing style and his thorough research which included when possible primary sources such as personal correspondence. I will be reading more of his books. I can’t decide whether to try The Intellectuals or The Creators next.

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