Friday, June 28, 2013

Ain't Nothing But a Man

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John HenryAin't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A historian tells the fascinating story of how he uncovered the tragic truth behind the folk songs about the American hero John Henry.

In the days of the transcontinental railroad, 40,000 Southern trackliners (mainly African-Americans) were erased by history. No one recorded their experiences. All researchers have left are scattered records and the work songs these forgotten men sang.

Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, recounts his quest for a young audience. Many different versions of the songs about John Henry's race with the steam engine exist, but one verse in particular - combined with a clue on an old postcard - led Nelson to look more closely at the Virginia Penitentiary: a place where the bones of 300 men were discovered buried in sand without any markers. That mass grave led the historian to the sad truth behind John Henry's ballad.

Ain't Nothing But a Man is an intriguing story of how historical research happens and of how the American transcontinental railroad was built (though some of the technical explanations were less than clear). Using illustrations from old photographs, socialist art, and old diagrams, Nelson relates a small part of the history of how the labor of thousands of unknown men led to tunnels through mountains and steel roads across America.

I only wish that Nelson had told us a little more about the reaction to finding the bodies at Virginia Penitentiary, and what happened to them after they were discovered. Where were they reburied? Did anyone search for the men's descendants?

The appendices are great for teachers hoping to get kids excited about historical research, and offer a few tips for doing your own fact-finding as well as plenty annotated sources for further reading.

A few of the books mentioned in the appendix:

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