Bontemps presents his twelve subjects with enthusiasm and a clear intention to inspire readers. He refrains from didacticism or sentimentality, letting the subjects’ courage and perseverance tell their own stories. The book emphasizes problem-solving and determination—with or without family support. There are a number of orphans and displaced children among these individuals; opposition seems to fuel them.
More than any other factor, education makes the difference between success and failure, a fact that is no doubt an object lesson to young readers. All these people sought higher education, often at great sacrifice. Their early circumstances were at best ordinary (only one or two came from families with any degree of wealth); most faced overwhelming disadvantages. Readers will find these subjects—all under-dogs—easy to like and admire.
Bontemps presents his subjects’ ordeals and achievements in plain language. Reflecting contemporary racial designations, he uses the term “Negro” (and occasionally “African-American”) rather than “black.” The book is not negative toward whites, but rather toward those members of all races who practice discouragement and injustice. Only James LuValle, a track star from Los Angeles who grew up to work for Eastman Kodak, escaped the sting of prejudice in his childhood. For the other subjects, racial inequality was a fact of life.
The individuals’ curiosity often compensated for what could otherwise have been drab and suffocating lives. Emmett M. May was so eager to see the world that he became a sailor while still in his teens. Algernon P. Henry, yearning for contact outside...
(The entire section is 680 words.)