Tuesday, May 27, 2008

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

I don't read much non-fiction. Nothing against it, but it doesn't often make it on my radar. I'll thumb through what I receive at the library, but only rarely do I seek one out.*

This one I sought.

Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson appealed to me in so many ways. First, it's kind of a mystery. Who was John Henry? Was he a real person or the stuff of tall tales? Can he go to the places mentioned in the songs and find out more? Are songs just entertainment or are they much more than that? I don't know where I first heard the song "John Henry" (one of many, many versions I learned), but I do know it. I have know it. For years!

Ain't Nothing But a Man is based on Nelson's "adult" book that came out a few years ago. In the youth book, we get the short & sweet version that is fast-paced and compelling. The chapters are brief with big images. Most of the chapters end with a question or a problem that the author seeks out in the next chapter. I loved this detective work.

I cannot review this book without getting into the great mystery of John Henry. But what I will say is that as many questions are answered, or addressed, more arise. The author challenges the reader to seek his or her own answers and talks quite a bit about the process of historical research. The story still lingers on my mind. Check this one out for an interesting book club discussion. There's plenty to talk about.

Review from the NYT that has a link to an MP3 of the song "John Henry".

*Okay, I do really like Susan Campbell Bartoletti's NF books.

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