Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Real John Henry

When reading a nonfiction book in bed keeps you interested after 11 hours at work and cooking dinner in a summer apartment with no air conditioning, it would appear you have a winner. Such is the case in Ain’t Nothing But a Man by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson. A picture book for older readers, 57 pages in length with excellent back matter, Nelson tells the story of how history is discovered. As Aronson says in the appendix, when you read a secondary source, not only do you get facts, you also get the author’s opinions and conclusions as well. By searching primary sources and actually visiting related sites, researchers find clues that lead you to draw your own conclusions. The work of a historian is very much like being a detective.

Nothing But a Man is the search to find the real John Henry. You know the songs; you have probably sung them yourself. We have all read Lester and Pinkney’s award winning picture book of the legend of John Henry. The author used versions of the song to find clues to discover the identity of John Henry. He learned that there were 40,000 men, mostly African American, working on the railroads in the South as trackliners. One of those was an inmate from a penitentiary in Virginia. His name was John Henry.

How did he find out? He was persistent in his requests of a librarian until one finally gave him access to the “big ledger.” He visited places that were mentioned in the songs. He read other works. He studied pictures. Eventually the clues led him to Lewis Tunnel and a conclusion that the songs, as many songs are, were sending a message- the hammer that killed John Henry “can’t kill me.”

Read it today. Read it more than once. Then remember what you read as you do your own research. Question what you read. Compare information. Answers don’t always come easily. Be a detective and find your own answers.

No comments: