Nelson wanted to find out about the real John Henry: did he exist? and if so, who was he, and why was he memorialized in the song? The book traces Nelson's historical hunt for John Henry, in a story that will keep young readers spellbound. This is how real historians do history, complete with primary and secondary sources, and plenty of dead ends, and it's a great model for History Day projects.
Without giving away the ending, it's useful to reprise one appendix that reviews six steps to being a historian:
- Find out what is known already. In other words, review secondary sources.
- Check the sources used by the authors of those secondary sources.
- Find gaps and disagreements and formulate your own questions. In general, if every interpretation of a historical topic agrees, not enough research has been done. Where do authors differ, and why?
- Look for new evidence. As this book makes clear, you don't have to travel to investigate new historical leads. Be open to other explanations, then explore them.
- Expand the search. In an excellent section, Nelson describes trying to find certain reports that were presumed lost. By using a variety of search methods, he eventually found them!
- Share what you have found. Other readers might point out avenues of research you've inadvertently missed, or even come up with new interpretations of your findings.
Not many books unpack the process of doing history, and fewer still are able to do so in the context of real historical research. That Nelson does both, and so engagingly, makes this book well worth reading.
Nelson, Scott Reynolds, with Marc Aronson. Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2008. 64 pp.