Gary Paulsen, the author of this book, calls it “the true and fictional account of the most valiant marshal in the West.” Mr. Paulsen adds a little here and there to fill in the places where history left gaps…but for the most part, this is the story of a real guy – the first African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi – and this was in the 1870s! Bass became a legend, even in his own time. Some outlaws turned themselves in once they heard it was Bass that would be looking for them!
Bass was born to slave parents in the 1830s but escaped to the Indian Territory during the Civil War and lived with the Seminole and Creek Indians. After the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in 1863, Bass returned from the Indian Territory and settled in Arkansas. Because he knew how to speak several tribal languages and knew the land so well, he was hired as a U.S. Marshal. In his lifetime he brought in over 3,000 outlaws. This book is the story of how he went from being a child slave to being one of the most respected lawmen in the West. A really inspiring story and fun to read too. Bass was not boring and thought up all kinds of interesting ways to trap outlaws or trick them into custody. He could fight and he could shoot when he had too, but mostly, he was smart! Truly, one-of- kind! Author: Gary Paulsen
In the folksong “John Henry,” John is a railroad worker who makes a promise to beat a steam powered drill by digging with his own two hands and his hammer. He says, “A man ain’t nothing but a man, before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.” As the story goes, John indeed beats the steam powered drill in a competition just as he promised. He also drops dead with his hammer in his hand…just like he promised!
Men swinging hammers, and later steam drills, were used in the 1800s to break through rocks to build America’s railroads. Like the John Henry in the song, thousands of men worked to build our railroads. Those men also died by the thousands from the tough physical labor and the dust that clogged their lungs. Those men sang songs to help them keep up a steady rhythm of hammering. One of those songs is “John Henry.” The song tells their story.
The author of this book set out to find out if there ever really was a man named John Henry. Was he just a legend, like Paul Bunyan? Was there any truth in the song? He traced many different versions of the John Henry song over time. He compared the lyrics to what was going on in railroad history and he uncovered the amazing and heartbreaking story of the men who made America’s railroads. The John Henry song tells the story of a man, but it also symbolizes all the men, especially African-American, Chinese-American & Irish-American men who literally worked themselves to death. It makes you wonder, why didn’t they quit? Many of the men were prisoners in state prisons loaned out to the railroad to do heavy labor. The rest were extremely poor and and had little choice but to accept this kind of work if they hoped to feed their families. Author: Scott Reynolds
Listen to this recording of men singing “John Henry”:
Simthsonian Audio of men working and singing “John Henry” (1947-1948)
Can’t you imagine yourself swinging a hammer to the rhythm? The work would be hot and back breaking. It would be hard to breathe. You can hear some of the hopelessness and sorrow in the voices too. Look at some pictures from the book:
Eleven year-old Elijah lives in Buxton, Canada in the 1850s. Buxton is a town made up entirely of runaway slaves that have escaped from America on the Underground Railroad. Elijah’s parents are former slaves, but Elijah himself was born free in Buxton. He leads a school boy’s life keeping up with his lessons and doing chores alongside Mr. Leroy, a community handy man who is working hard to save up enough money to buy his family’s freedom. Elijah is well known in his town for being sensitive, quiet and easily moved to tears.
A devastating turn of events brings Elijah face to face with the fear and horror experienced by his parents and the former slaves in his town. A sneaky preacher steals Mr. Leroy’s money, and his dream of being reunited with his family. Elijah sets off after the thief in a desperate attempt to recover the money. The chase brings Elijah to America and the constant threat of being captured by slave bounty hunters. In one memorable scene Elijah stumbles across a group of slaves who have been re-captured. Shackled together in a barn the group is starving and thirsty. One of the slaves holds a baby out to him. Should he take the baby and run, or try to rescue the group? It is one of many heart wrenching scenes that shows the horrors of slavery. Elijah proves that being brave doesn’t mean not being scared, being brave means that even when you are scared out of your mind, you do what needs done anyway. Author: Christopher Paul Curtis