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

Booklist Reviews 2008 February #1
*Starred Review* Not many history books are written in first person, but this is no ordinary history book. It traces a historian's quest for the man behind the legend of John Henry. Nelson's research involved listening to hundreds of variants of the song John Henry, learning about post-Civil War railway construction projects, visiting possible sites for the legendary contest between man and steam drill, and in one groundbreaking moment, glancing at the 1910 postcard on his desktop, hearing the lyrics of a version of John Henry in his mind, and making a connection that no other modern historian had considered. Based on Nelson's Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (2006), this large-format volume retells the story for young people. Many period photos, paintings, and engravings, reproduced in shades of rust and sepia, are shown to good advantage in this handsomely designed book. Appendixes include suggestions for further reading and Nelson's notes on his sources and on the John Henry song variants, as well as the ongoing search for information about John Henry. Marc Aronson contributes a section on How to Be a Historian, using Nelson's search as a model. A lively, insightful introduction to the active pursuit of history. Copyright 2008 Booklist Reviews.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2008 #1
The author of an award-winning adult book on John Henry joins with a notable writer of young adult nonfiction to lead readers through a search illuminating the mystery of history. Though sometimes temporarily stymied, Nelson follows clues, from song lyrics to census data, engineering reports, and prison records, tracking a folk hero who originated in the reality of 1870s racial injustice. Sepia historical photographs on buff paper, with scarlet captions and occasional overlays, depict the setting and cast for this gripping saga. We learn the likelihood that John Henry was a convict who might have died from a heart attack after his famous duel with a steam engine but more probably succumbed to the rock-dust-induced lung disease silicosis, after which he was secretly buried along with hundreds of other incarcerated African Americans hired out for railroad work. Given the dramatic role that photographs play in identifying the "white house" of the song (Nelson believes it was a reference to the Virginia Penitentiary), it is curious that there is no description of the process by which he discovered what may be an actual photograph of John Henry, but Nelson's archival sleuthing is otherwise meticulously documented. Appendices add background and suggest research guidelines, while a bibliography, source notes, and index support further investigation. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2007 October #2
With assistance from Aronson, a veteran author/editor and nabob of nonfiction, Nelson recasts his adult title Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend (2006) into a briefer account that not only suspensefully retraces his search for the man behind the ballad, but also serves as a useful introduction to historical-research methods. Supported by a generous array of late-19th- and early-20th-century photos--mostly of chain-gang "trackliners" and other rail workers--the narrative pieces together clues from song lyrics, an old postcard, scattered business records and other sources, arriving finally at both a photo that just might be the man himself, and strong evidence of the drilling contest's actual location. The author then goes on to make speculative but intriguing links between the trackliners' work and the origins of the blues and rock-'n'-roll, and Aronson himself closes with an analytical appendix. It's an eye-opening case study in how history and folklore can intertwine. (maps, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-13) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 December #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.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2007 December

Gr 4-8-- This book is as much about a historian's quest for the truth as it is a biography of the well-known strong man. Nelson chronicles how he began to learn about African-American workers on the railroad in the South. He talks about his research process and delineates primary and secondary sources. Noting how dead ends occur during research, the author explains how he overcame roadblocks and took his search in other directions. The layout is attractive, with a sepia and beige background for the text and sepia-toned photographs to set the atmosphere for this history taking place during the Civil War years. The appendixes explain the many versions of the folk song and include a section about "How to Be a Historian" by Marc Aronson. This is an excellent example of how much detective work is needed for original research. It will fill a need in many collections.--Blair Christolon, Prince William Public Library System, Manassas, VA

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