UK Prime Minister Brown (Moving Britain Forward: Selected Speeches, 1997-2006, 2006, etc.) considers eight political mavericks who fought for righteous social causes, often sacrificing their lives.
Four of his subjects are of unquestioned global stature: Raoul Wallenberg, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. Four, perhaps lesser known, quickly prove worthy of Brown’s scholarship. Edith Cavell innovated nursing practices during World War I and helped many Allied prisoners escape from occupied Belgium; she was eventually court-martialed and shot. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted the Nazi regime. Cicely Saunders single-handedly upgraded standards of palliative care for the terminally ill and developed the hospice idea. Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest in Myanmar since 1989, won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of democracy and nonviolence. Occasionally, the book benefits from Brown’s personal acquaintance with his subject. His affectionate profile of Mandela, for example, is full of refreshing insights into the South African leader. Other chapters—such as those covering Wallenberg, King and Kennedy—are not groundbreaking, but they do convey the author’s sense of reverence and respect; readers learn as much about Brown’s worldview as about the people he depicts. The generous inclusion of correspondence, first-person interviews and other primary-source materials invests each meticulous profile with an air of authenticity. Brown consistently demonstrates the lucid, unwavering, objective eye of a historian, detailing all the frustrations and errors of his subjects, whose character flaws he is unafraid to point out. His portraits do not sanctify sociopolitical icons; instead they celebrate ordinary men and women called to extraordinary feats in the service of causes that stirred their passion.
Well-written and heartfelt—a worthy companion to its obvious inspiration, John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1956).