Natural Born Heroes

How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

By Christopher McDougall

Knopf. 352 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Miriam Díaz-Gilbert

The setting in local author Christopher McDougall's Natural Born Heroes is the island of Crete. The book jacket claims the book will inspire readers "to leave the gym, and take their fitness routine to nature - to climb, swim, skip, throw, and jump their way to their own heroic feats." Maybe. The cast of characters is a group of British and Cretan Resistance fighters whose mission, in 1944, is to kidnap a German general, Heinrich Kreipe. Along with others, these "misfits" - "wandering playboy-poet" Patrick "Patty" Leigh Fermor; "penniless artist" Xan Fielding; one-eyed archaeologist John Pendlebury; and sheep farmer George Psychoundakis, the mountain-running messenger for the Resistance - take us on an adventure of human endurance.

If you are not the endurance type, you might find this ambitious book exhausting and hard to keep up with. If you have saved a life and been called a hero, however, you might see yourself here. History Channel Hitler documentary fans and World War II history buffs will read this book with great interest. If you are an aficionado of Greek mythology, you are in for a real treat. After all, Crete - the Island of Heroes - is the birthplace of Zeus.  

 McDougall travels to Crete to meet with Christopher White, a British social worker who wonders how a German general disappeared into thin air amid a mass of German troops. McDougall's mission is to retrace what the Resistance fighters endured as they hiked miles and miles through rain, snow, and heat; foraged for weeds to survive; ran on zero calories; and hid in the mountainous terrain with the help of local shepherds as they schemed and plotted the general's abduction.

McDougall devotes chapters to fascia profunda, the elastic tissue that connects our muscles and organs and is the source of our bodily strength; Parkour, the discipline of movement; the martial art of Wing Chun. He meets Leda Meredith, who teaches him how to forage for garlic mustard, lamb's quarters, and dandelions in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

I am not sure this smorgasbord of a book will inspire folks to tackle endurance running or heroism. But I suspect some readers will be inspired to go foraging in their lawns and parks for weeds, a special weapon of the Cretan Resistance. Be a hero - tackle Natural Born Heroes.