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10 Books About Bold Historical Figures to Inspire Your Inner Hero

Described as “tremendously readable and enjoyable” by The New York Times Book Review, Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire is a thrilling account of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War. Many people are quite familiar with Churchill’s time as England’s prime minister, but Millard brings his more daring and adventurous achievements that preceded his rise in politics roaring to life in her latest bestselling book.

Inspired by Churchill’s bravery, we’ve put together a list of books about equally heroic historical figures. Be warned: these tales of valor may contribute to elevated levels of pluck and mettle!

Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard

“A thrilling account…. This book is an awesome nail-biter and top-notch character study rolled into one.” Jennifer Senior, The New York Times (Critic’s Choice)

At the age of twenty-four, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England. He arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels and jumpstart his political career. Just two weeks later, Churchill was taken prisoner.  Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape—traversing hundreds of miles of enemy territory alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.

Bestselling author Candice Millard spins an epic story of bravery, savagery, and chance encounters with a cast of historical characters with whom Churchill would later share the world stage. But Hero of the Empire is more than an extraordinary adventure story, for the lessons Churchill took from the Boer War would profoundly affect twentieth-century history.

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diaryThe Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is among the most enduring documents of the twentieth century. Since its publication in 1947, it has been a beloved and deeply admired monument to the indestructible nature of the human spirit, read by millions of people and translated into more than fifty-five languages. Anne Frank and her family, fleeing the horrors of Nazi occupation forces, hid in the back of an Amsterdam office building for two years. This is Anne’s record of that time.  She was thirteen when the family went into the ”Secret Annex” and in these pages she grows to be a young woman and proves to be an insightful observer of human nature as well. A timeless story discovered by each new generation, The Diary of a Young Girl stands without peer. For young readers and adults, it continues to bring to life this young woman, who for a time survived the worst horrors the modern world had seen — and who remained triumphantly and heartbreakingly human throughout her ordeal.

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desertDesert Queen by Janet Wallach

Desert Queen, as timely as today’s headlines, plucks Gertrude Bell out of the shadow of Lawrence of Arabia.” —The Boston Globe

Here is the story of Gertrude Bell, who explored, mapped, and excavated the Arab world throughout the early twentieth century. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T. E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was at the time considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.

In this masterful biography, Janet Wallach shows us the woman behind these achievements—a woman whose passion and defiant independence were at odds with the confined and custom-bound England she left behind. Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history and as a woman whose life was both a heartbreaking story and a grand adventure.

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ghostGhost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

“The greatest World War II story never told.” —Esquire

On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: march thirty rugged miles to rescue 513 prisoners of war languishing in a hellish camp, among them the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. A recent prison massacre by Japanese soldiers elsewhere in the Philippines made the stakes impossibly high and left little time to plan the complex operation.

In Ghost Soldiers Hampton Sides vividly re-creates this daring raid, offering a minute-by-minute narration that unfolds alongside intimate portraits of the prisoners and their lives in the camp. Sides shows how the POWs banded together to survive, defying the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and torture. Harrowing, poignant, and inspiring, Ghost Soldiers is the mesmerizing story of a remarkable mission. It is also a testament to the human spirit, an account of enormous bravery and self-sacrifice amid the most trying conditions.

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perishAnd If I Perish by Evelyn Monahan & Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee

“The contributions and sacrifices of American nurses in World War II were ignored for decades. . . . Read this book, and remember them all.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In World War II, fifty-nine thousand women voluntarily risked their lives for their country as U.S. Army nurses. When the war began, some of them had so little idea of what to expect that they packed party dresses; but the reality of service quickly caught up with them, whether they waded through the water in the historic landings on North African and Normandy beaches or worked around the clock in hospital tents on the Italian front as bombs fell.

For more than half a century these women’s experiences remained untold, almost without reference in books, historical societies, or military archives. After years of research and hundreds of hours of interviews, Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee have created a dramatic narrative that at last brings to light the critical role that women played throughout the war. From the North African and Italian Campaigns to the liberation of France and the conquest of Germany, U.S. Army nurses rose to the demands of war on the front lines with grit, humor, and great heroism. A long overdue work of history, And If I Perish is also a powerful tribute to these women and their inspiring legacy.

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brothersFounding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis

“Lively and illuminating. . . . Leaves the reader with a visceral sense of a formative era in American life.” —The New York Times

In this landmark work of history and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Joseph J. Ellis explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals—Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison—confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.

The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers—re-examined here as Founding Brothers—combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes—Hamilton and Burr’s deadly duel; Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address; Adams’ administration and political partnership with his wife; the debate about where to place the capital; Franklin’s attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison’s attempts to block him; and Jefferson and Adams’ famous correspondence—Founding Brothers brings to life the vital issues and personalities from the most important decade in our nation’s history.

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harrietHarriet Tubman by Beverly Lowry

“A swiftly paced, fascinating read. . . . Lowry has a ripe subject in Tubman.”  —The Boston Globe

Tubman was an escaped slave, lumberjack, laundress, raid leader, nurse, fund-raiser, cook, intelligence gatherer, Underground Railroad organizer, and abolitionist. In Harriet Tubman, Lowry creates a portrait enriched with lively imagined vignettes that transform the legendary icon into flesh and blood. We travel with Tubman on slave-freeing raids in the heart of the Confederacy, along the treacherous route of the Underground Railroad, and onto the battlefields of the Civil War. Integrating extensive research and interviews with scholars and historians into a rich and mesmerizing chronicle, Lowry brings an American hero to life as never before.

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boldBold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt

“Surprising, inspiring. . . . Hunt skillfully brings this story alive.” —The Seattle Times

In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight children named Helga Estby was behind on taxes and the mortgage when she learned that a mysterious sponsor would pay ten thousand dollars if Helga and her daughter Clara would walk across America.

Hoping to win the wager and save her family’s farm, Helga and her teenaged daughter Clara, armed with little more than a compass, red-pepper spray, a revolver, and Clara’s curling iron, set out on foot from eastern Washington. Their route would pass through fourteen states, but they were not allowed to carry more than five dollars each. As they visited Indian reservations, Western boomtowns, remote ranches, and local civic leaders, they confronted snowstorms, hunger, thieves, and mountain lions with equal aplomb.

Their treacherous and inspirational journey to New York challenged contemporary notions of femininity and captured the public imagination. But their trip had such devastating consequences that the Estby women’s achievement was blanketed in silence until, nearly a century later, Linda Lawrence Hunt encountered their extraordinary story.

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mandelaMandela by Anthony Sampson

“A truly heroic story of the founder of a nation, a man of shrewdness, humanity and simplicity whose power came not from military conquest, but from moral authority.” —Chicago Tribune

Nelson Mandela, who emerged from twenty-six years of political imprisonment to lead South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy, was perhaps the world’s most admired leader, a man whose life was led with exemplary courage and inspired conviction.

Anthony Sampson, who had known Mandela since 1951 and has been a close observer of South Africa’s political life, produced the first authorized biography, the most informed and comprehensive portrait to date of a man whose dazzling image has been difficult to penetrate. With unprecedented access to Mandela’s private papers, meticulous research, and hundreds of interviews, Sampson has composed an enlightening and necessary story of the man behind the myth.

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agesBook of Ages by Jill Lepore

“Jane Franklin’s indomitable voice and hungry, searching intellect shine through these pages; she will not be forgotten, and the world is richer for it.” —Time, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year

From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians, a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.

Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one extraordinary woman but an entire world.

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