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

by Scott Nelson and Marc Aronson

Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson started out researching the undocumented story of... read more

Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson started out researching the undocumented story of African American railroad workers in the South in the days when rock was being blasted and track was being laid. One lead he followed was the legend of John Henry. What could that tale—told and retold in song and story—reveal about Black railroad laborers? Soon, however, his research focused on John Henry himself—was he a myth or real man? In this fascinating documentation of Nelson’s research journey, also chronicled in Nelson’s adult book Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press, 2006), Marc Aronson carries readers along with Nelson into railroad tunnels and reading rooms, Civil War records and traces of a prison disgrace. Nelson pieced together the facts they reveal and questions still unanswered to offer a theory on the life behind the legend of John Henry. The result is a truly thrilling look at how history is revealed—at how meticulous research and intuitive leaps that raise hairs on the back of one’s head can deepen understanding of the past. The use of numerous documentary photographs and other images from the nineteenth century add a powerful visual dimension, although some artists’ renderings reflect racial stereotypes and an explanation acknowledging this would have been welcome. Nevertheless, this volume is insightful, inspiring, and will be, for many, impossible to put down. (Age 10 and older)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2009

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