Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ain’t Nothing But a Man(hunt)

Those interested in the processes of historical research should prioritize checking out Ain't Nothing But a Man by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson.

It’s an unorthodox children’s history book because the historian is a main character. He documents his quest to find out if the steel-driving John Henry of American 1800s folklore was real—and if so, just who he was.

Nelson faced a tall order in trying to demystify this alleged tall tale: finding information on a black man of that period—when a horrifyingly large number of people didn’t consider black people worthy of respect, let alone documentation—plus a man with the seriously generic name “John Henry”…challenges all around.

Every historical writer is a detective. Nelson’s story has some exciting moments (for me, anyway; they remind me of similar research epiphanies I’ve had). At times, I felt like I was reading a thriller, especially on pages 40-41 and 51. The last line on 51 is what it’s all about: finding (whether deliberately or not) a new path to unlock hidden information.

Bonus for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman fans: page 55 of Nelson’s book identifies a possible connection between John Henry and Superman. This connection came full circle in 1993 when DC Comics, publisher of Superman, introduced Steel, a staunch ally of Superman’s. His real name is John Henry Irons, he's black...

...and his accessory of choice is a friggin' huge hammer.

So much historical research is as exciting as Nelson’s, but we rarely read about it (in children’s books, anyway). Mostly, we read “only” the outcome.

But this blog has always been about the story behind the stories. As I say in my “About” section, every book has two stories, the one in print and the one that got it in print. Those two stories are like fraternal twins—each likely interesting in its/his own right and also interesting when considered as a pair. And their bond may generate a different story than each would individually.

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