Author, archaeologist, and television presenter Neil Oliver is worried about the state of modern youth. More specifically, he’s worried about boys; with all the iPods and the Twittering and indoor plumbing, he’s concerned that the lads of today will turn into the weaklings of tomorrow. To that end, Oliver has collected some of what he considers to be the most exciting, inspiring examples of “manly men” from throughout history and put them together in Amazing Tales For Making Men Out Of Boys. Each story is presented for maximum edification and instruction, although Oliver doesn’t skimp on the thrills; the result is an entertaining, sometimes moving collection of heroism in adventure and war, although readers may not arrive at the exact conclusions the author would like.
Oliver takes his tales from all over the world and history, but he opens with Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole forms the spine of the collection, as Oliver returns to it at the end of each chapter. The rest of the book ranges from the popularly known—there’s a section on the last stand at the Alamo, and one describing the battle at Thermopylae that inspired the graphic novel and movie 300—to the more obscure, like the Quaker Pennsylvanian Josiah Harlan, who tried to create his own kingdom in Afghanistan in the early 1800s. Through it all, Oliver continues to reinforce his central thesis: Being a man requires courage, fortitude, and strength, and every male should strive to be one.
Oliver’s selections are undeniably impressive, and the individuals who give their all—often including their lives—are worthy of respect. The problem comes in Oliver’s idea of gender roles, which wouldn’t seem out of place on an episode of Mad Men, and the fact that a good two-thirds of the stories he picked end in wasted death. “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” is a tragedy, not a triumph, and there’s something disconcerting about being told that the only true measure of a man’s worth is how valiantly he gets himself killed for someone else’s mistakes. When Oliver stays out of his own way, the stories and his writing are strong enough to earn their title. A little less lecturing, and this might’ve been something for kids of all kinds.