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

Scott Nelson, Author, Marc Aronson, With with Marc Aronson. National Geographic $18.95 (64p) ISBN 978-1-4263-0000-4

Nelson (Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend ) offers a highly accessible version of his research into whether or not the John Henry of folksong fame was a real person. Piecing together a panoply of facts and personal anecdotes that go back to his boyhood, the author models the study of history as an active and passionate pursuit: “For years I had been following a trail, and it was stone cold.... And then... I suddenly saw it, the clue that changed everything.” This cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter draws readers into Nelson's journey through the song lyrics, old prison documents, maps, photographs and other primary and secondary sources. From “trackliners” (workers, often African-American, who aligned rails) to steam drills to Civil War history, the first-person narrative follows Nelson as he plays detective. Seemingly diverse information presented in each of nine chapters becomes knit together by the conclusion, and visually unified by an aesthetically pleasingly layout that features a reddish brick palette with tinted photos and prints. One graphic—and telling—photo reveals the remains of two African-African men discovered on the grounds of a Virginia prison: John Henry, posits the author, was part of a huge prisoner work force hired out to tunnel through mountains for the railroad companies. Convincing and dramatic, this volume makes a good case that history is a living science. Ages 10-14. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 12/24/2007
Release date: 12/01/2007
Library Binding - 64 pages - 978-1-4263-0001-1
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