Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson
Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson recounts how he came to discover the real John Henry, an African-American railroad worker who became a legend in the famous song.

1 comment:

Lawrence Downes/NYTimes said...

The challenge of making history come alive for children, little creatures with no histories of their own, is too often achieved through contortions of hipness or overdramatization. Congratulations to Nelson and Marc Aronson (who has written prizewinning books of nonfiction for children) for giving us history straight up, even with appendices and an index, and explaining the real work of the researcher. It involves slogging through library catalogs, hounding librarians and working toward that awesome moment when, after years of fruitless searching, a document emerges from a long-sealed box covered in coal dust that covers your arms and cheeks and stings your eyes....
“Ain’t Nothing but a Man” is generously supplemented with old illustrations and photographs, even one taken through the windshield of the author’s car as he approaches the tunnel he thinks could be John Henry’s. The book doesn’t say an awful lot about the song itself in its many incarnations — that gets an extended exploration in the grown-up book, but not here — and sometimes takes leaps that seem a little bigger than necessary. Were pictures of John Henry’s ripped torso really the inspiration for Superman? And even if a railroad worker did “rock and roll” a drill between whacks of a hammer, did that term really have anything to do with the one that, many decades later, came to mean something a lot less dangerous and a lot more fun? But never mind that. Nelson’s enthusiasm for historical sleuthing would whet any reader’s appetite to do the same. It pulls the neat trick of giving you a heaping serving of a story you thought you already knew, and leaving you wanting more.