Veteran reporter John Quinones has distilled from his many years of journalistic experience stories of people he has encountered whose goodness far exceeds anyone’s expectations. One might assume that a journalist who has covered wars and all other manner of horrifying situations (such as Hurricane Katrina) naturally would be jaded and cynical. Such is not the case with Quinones, though he is no Pollyanna. He has learned to look for the good in people and has repeatedly found it.
Quinones’s first unsung hero is his mother. A sixth-generation American who grew up in the barrio of San Antonio’s west side, he was taught the values of working hard, doing the right thing, respecting oneself and others, and believing in the innate decency of people.
He believes that true heroes are often the quiet, unknown folks who rise to meet an unexpected crisis. Such a person might put himself or herself at risk while assisting a total stranger. These seemingly ordinary people do not seek publicity or expect financial gain when they step out of their comfort zone and step up to be of assistance. Often these silent heroes receive no recognition at all, even though they deserve it.
While Quinones does list among his heroes such well-known individuals as Christa McAuliffe, Todd Beamer and Harvey Milk --- and includes vignettes of their lives --- the stories he chronicles concern people we otherwise never would know about. An example is Shannon Allen, a school principal who confronted a deranged gunman who threatened her students. Where did she get the courage, the ability, the sheer nerve? “Pure instinct” is her only explanation. Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and saved them from the horrors of the concentration camps, put herself in danger many times. Yet even today she still believes she should have done more.
We live in a culture that seems to worship celebrity, especially entertainers and professional athletes. But they are not true heroes. On the evening news we learn about five-year-old Kyla Olvera, who called 911 when her babysitter became unconscious. That child is a hero. Someone, probably her parents, had explained 911 to her. And when the unthinkable happened, she had the clearness of mind not only to call for assistance but to take care of her baby sister until help arrived. She is what the author refers to as an accidental hero --- a person who is in the right place at the right time and seizes the opportunity to do the right thing. Wesley Autrey is another such hero. While waiting for a subway, he saw a man suffer a seizure and fall onto the train tracks. As the train was coming, Wesley jumped onto the tracks and covered the man with his body, thus saving him. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero: “I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”
Quinones hosts the popular “Primetime: What Would You Do?” in which a scenario is shown and then several ways of dealing with the situation are suggested. He explains which solution is best and why some of the other possibilities would not be effective, safe or appropriate. This program helps the viewer imagine what he or she would do in certain unexpected circumstances. For example, would we stand up to verbal abuse, chase a mugger, change a flat tire for a stranger, or step in if someone was beating a stray dog? Why or why not?
HEROES AMONG US encourages readers to seriously think about how to react to various situations. We may never need to pull someone out of a burning building or disarm a mugger, but one never really knows what might occur at any time. To be mentally prepared to help someone who needs assistance is certainly a good thing.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on January 6, 2009