We’re all fascinated by the lives and deeds of famous Americans, but minor historical figures can be even more intriguing. Secret Heroes tells the stories of thirty remarkable Americans—heroes all in different ways, although their names are largely unfamiliar. They come from every period of history and all walks of life—scientists, soldiers, spies, adventurers, inventors, businessmen, artists, activists—but every one of them had an impact on their world that still resonates today.

There’s the Nebraska-born agronomist who saved millions in Asia from starvation…the Washington travel writer who struck upon the felicitous notion of gracing the nation’s capital with flowering cherry trees…and the former slave who spied for the Union in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There’s Hercules Mulligan, the New York tailor who saved George Washington’s life—not once but twice. There’s Jimmie Angel, the gold-seeking bush pilot who discovered the world’s highest waterfall in 1933 in Venezuela. And there’s Clarence Saunders, who in 1916 single-handedly invented all the basic concepts of modern retail shopping.

Other memorable characters include America’s first muckraking journalist (a tough little sixty-two-year-old woman!), the first black combat pilot, and the first death row inmate whose conviction was overturned by DNA testing. The fact that these subjects dwell in the shadows gives them a special appeal. They’re like quirky character actors—they might only be featured in a scene or two, but without them, the movie just wouldn’t be the same.

Reading about these forgotten figures is a great chance to learn about history in a way that’s different from the approach of textbooks, which focus on the monumental exploits of presidents, generals, and founding fathers. Secret Heroes provides a unique lens on America by looking at important episodes through the lives of everyday people, which adds poignancy and immediacy to the sweep of events. The book is aimed at history buffs and fans of Americana—or anyone who just likes rooting for the underdog.