In My Heroes, explorer, fundraiser, author and public speaker Sir Ranulph Fiennes pays tribute to the men and women who have inspired him. Sir Fiennes is an iconic figure and many people have read about his exploits and regard him their hero. So who are the people who have made it to the hero list of a man who was described as "the world's greatest living explorer" by The Guinness Book of World Records? Here is a sampling of his heroes, both well-known and little-known — from Paul Rusesabagina, whose life inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, to the brave policemen and firefighters during the violence that erupted at Broadwater Estate, London, in 1985, and Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Sir Fiennes has chosen these figures "more for their courage than their knowledge, skills and education". The author offers summations of why each figure merits admiration — Gladys Aylward, for instance, because she left her home country, travelled across the world to China to evangelise and care for orphans; the residents of Eyam who "chose to stay and probably to die, rather than to risk spreading the contagion" during the Great Plague of 1665; and the families in Cambodia who stood by each other through trying times.
Sir Fiennes shares the struggles and triumphs of his heroes; however, sometimes he exaggerates their contribution. For instance, in Gladys's contribution in China, he glorifies the foreigner(s) too much and portrays the local way of life as too backward. Gladys is presented as a saviour who moved in to tame and modernise the "savages". This portrayal of the developing world was typical of colonial writers but is something that is not expected from a contemporary writer.
A former serviceman hardened by war, Sir Fiennes narrates the actions and suffering of soldiers in battle in great detail, such as the plight of British and Russian soldiers during the Crimean War and Marcus Luttrell's narrow escape when a Navy Seal operation went wrong in Iraq.
He takes us from the rugged Hindu Kush mountains to the Omani desert to a housing project in London, and then off to Rwandan and Cambodian villages and towns. We watch as neighbours turn against each other, and as his heroes take a bold stand and protect both those they love and strangers. He describes explicit scenes of bloodshed. We get into the minds of the Khmer Rouge killers and into the minds of the survivors. The book is filled with images of the wounded; bodies and torn human limbs are strewn all over the place, dogs and wild animals feed on human remains.
Though removed from these events and experiences geographically and historically, I found the book moving and at times quite disturbing — My Heroes is definitely not for the fainthearted.
Though the book provides well-researched and vibrantly narrated historical accounts of the conflicts, I found something rather strange in the section on Cambodia. Most of the stories are narrated by Cambodians who are now based in the United States. Coupled with that, most of them were aged 4 or 5 when the events took place. I was tempted to think that their memories were probably jogged by what they heard when they moved to the West.
In other words, they tell the story from a Western perspective. It would have been more credible if he had interviewed the diaspora along with those who stayed behind in Cambodia.
Also, I found some of his heroes questionable. They make foolish decisions, but Sir Fiennes makes a compelling case for them and gives convincing reasons why he included them. Also, the term "hero" is subjective; for example, a rebel to some is a hero to others. Even Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela was dubbed a terrorist by the apartheid regime.
My Heroes is packed with primary source material and maps, and a glossary, and the author has thrown in photos to add to the appeal of the book.