The best books about true courage in facing danger when you are afraid; cowards who became heroes

Martin Campbell Author Of Sailor's Heart
By Martin Campbell

The Books I Picked & Why

A Gathering of Men

By Rona Simmons

Book cover of A Gathering of Men

Why this book?

I may be going out on a limb here, but I suspect that Rona Simmons was never a member of the 100th Bomb Group in WW2 combat, which makes this book all the more remarkable. It is her choice of details that make the story so convincing, powerfully evoking the times and the places.  As is often the case with truly great stories, truth trumps fiction. This isn’t historical fiction. It transcends genres, which may be a headscratcher for booksellers, but is a delight for readers like me.

The airmen, face the spinning barrels of a gun in a game of aerial Russian roulette on every mission. In a tale of honour, brotherhood, and true courage, with a twist in the tail that could only come from real life. 

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The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II

By Charles Glass

Book cover of The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II

Why this book?

Until I read this book, I knew nothing about men who broke down in battle and were unable to fight on or deserted. It is a topic that is seldom covered in hero-driven war literature or films, depicted as cowardice and still having some taint of shame.

Charles Glass uses military records and personal accounts, including detailed descriptions of battlefront incidents, to paint a picture of what it is to face the terror of war and the debilitating unpredictability of not knowing which bullet has your name on it.

Across WWI and WW2, he uses case studies to take the reader to the trenches, or to huddle behind some broken wall. What is remarkable is not how many brave men deserted, but how many did not.

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Wizard of Oz

By L. Frank Baum, Robin Robinson

Book cover of Wizard of Oz

Why this book?

This is (still) the best book that I have ever read about cowards who became heroes.

Whether you read it as an adult or with a child, before or after you have seen the movie multiple times, you can marvel at how Dorothy and all the characters (and there are many more in the books than in the movie) inspire the readers by overcoming adversity.

The book is a rollercoaster of emotion - never knowing what is on the next page - and the movie transcends Harry Potter or Indiana Jones for action. “True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.” This is the difference between being fearless and being courageous.

If you feel no fear, then you are fearless, yes, but not courageous.

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The Siberian Dilemma: Volume 9

By Martin Cruz Smith

Book cover of The Siberian Dilemma: Volume 9

Why this book?

Arkady Renko, a Moscow detective is a true hero, someone regarded as weak and hopeless to all around him, but ultimately redeemed by his principles and by his actions. Martin Cruz Smith is my favourite “cold places” writer, so when I heard that Renko was going to Siberia, I was hooked. (Before he goes, he shoots a bear in Moscow with a tranquilliser dart, but no more plot spoilers…)

He goes to the far, frozen east to record a police confession and to find his lost girlfriend, encountering bullets, corruption, frostbite, and more bears. His boss back in Moscow expects him to fail, as does nearly everyone he meets. But they all underestimate Arkady Renko, a hero underdog.

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Calum's Road

By Roger Hutchinson

Book cover of Calum's Road

Why this book?

It takes real guts to prove all the naysayers wrong, and become a hero.

Raassay is a remote Scottish island, site of the Rona lighthouse, which Calum MacLeod tended full time until 1967 when he was 56, and the lighthouse was semi-automated.  As the only man living in northern Raasay, he had some more time on his hands.

To bring more people to the area, he decided to build a road, nearly two miles long, using just a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, multiple pairs of wellington boots, and his bare hands.  It took him ten years. Today on Calum’s Road or “Rathad Chaluim” (in Gaelic) drivers are in awe of one man’s determination to do what he believed was needed, despite the cost.

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