Ray and his sister Sally are on an orphan train in hopes of finding new parents out West. On the train, Ray realizes that Sally would stand a better chance at getting adopted if she didn’t have an older brother – so he jumps off the train to adventure on his own.
Ray has one thing to remind him of the life he used to have, a stone his father gave him. It is a lodestone, a magnetic stone used to make compasses. The stone is acting funny. It seems to be pulling Ray South, so Ray decides to go wherever the lodestone leads.
The stone leads Ray to Cornelius T. Carter’s Mystifying Medicine Show, a sideshow that travels in a steam train from town to town performing tricks and selling medicine oil. The band of performers includes a blind sharpshooter, a snake charmer, a fire-eater, a sword swallower and a strong man. Ray discovers that these performers are more than they first appear. The strong man, Conker, is John Henry’s son. John Henry was a legendary railroad worker who defeated a steam powered hammer, man against machine, in a contest. John Henry won the challenge, but then dropped dead from the effort. His stories are legends like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan.
Ray discovers that John Henry’s legend is actually real and that John Henry didn’t just win a competition, he defeated a demonic machine built by a man (the Gog) who is still determined to dominate the world with his evil mechanical inventions. Ray finds out that there is a band of heroes, called Ramblers, who have been fighting the Gog for years. Ramblers are like knights or rangers or aurors…their job is to protect the world from evil. Ray finds out his dad, a Rambler, helped John Henry beat the evil machine…but that the Gog and his evil machines are back. It is up to Ray and Conker and their friends to rally the remaining Ramblers and the Rambler’s children to do battle again.
This story draws a lot of characters and personality from tales of the American South, African American Folklore and tales from the frontier West. I liked reading about traveling by steam locomotive. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but back in those days there were trains owned by individual people that traveled all over the country – trains decked out like fancy RVs inside.
The story is science fiction meets the frontier meets steampunk. (Steampunk is a story that involves technology before that technology was actually invented. The evil gunius in this story uses robotic creatures that are built with technology not known in the 1800s.) Ray’s adventure is like Harry Potter because there is an ensemble cast of kids that have inherited the fight from a previous generation.
There are no unicorns or dragons or wizards in this magical story, but magic still, a kind of magic that has its roots in African-American history and the American South called hoo doo. People knowledgeable in hoo doo are called conjurers or root doctors. They make potions from herbs, animals, or items owned by a person. Sometimes, the hoo doo knowledge is what we might call a folk remedy. Hoo doo uses a bit of science and a bit of the spiritual unknown to conjure up its magic. Author: Claude Bemis Series: The Clockwork Dark
- Look Inside The Nine Pound Hammer
- The Nine Pound Hammer on CD
- Disney’s John Henry Part One and Two
- Listen NPR Author Interview with Claude Bemis
There is a really cool book about the song The Ballad of John Henry. The book traces the history of the song and takes a guess at who John Henry really was. This book is called Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. Generally, legends are based on at least a tiny bit of truth and this book shows the historical treasure hunt the author went on to track down the bits of truth in the John Henry story.
The video below is the blues artist John Jackson singing the John Henry song. Blues music came out of African-American communites in the South in the 1800s. Songs included spirituals and work songs and chants. A lot of times the songs told a story in a ballad – John Henry is a ballad and work song.Print This Post