Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Giant and How He Humbugged America

Plot Summary
In 1869, workers digging a well on William Newell’s farm were astonished when their shovels hit something hard. After a few hours, they excavated a massive stone man, who scientists and assorted “experts” deemed as a petrified man. Newell let other men buy shares in ownership of the giant and they toured the giant around the country. P.T. Barnum thought the man was a fake, and “found” his own to tour. There was a competition between the two giants, until scientists and other experts studied both giants and came to a conclusion regarding their authenticity.

Critical Analysis
Jim Murphy’s bio states that he carefully researches his nonfiction and has won awards such as two Newbery Honors, a Sibert Medal, and the Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award. I feel like these accomplishments give him credentials worthy of the book he’s written.
     The book does not have in-text citations, but the last few pages of the book are Source Notes, divided by chapter, that give extra details on things mentioned in the text. Since information is not given as parenthetical documentation or footnotes, I feel like this is the best way to appeal to children, and I feel like they would read the entire book, including the source notes.

The book is told chronologically, from the time the giant was discovered until he was retired in a museum. There are a few flashbacks to explain how the giant was created and planted, and the book ends by focusing on a modern day hoax that National Geographic fell for. The book starts with a cast of characters and what parts they played. Chapters are titled according to the major action that occurs during the text. After the conclusion of the giant’s story, there are brief summaries of other famous hoaxes. Source notes are included, as well as a bibliography, photo credits, and an index. There is also a detailed section about the author’s research process.

This book is fairly text-heavy, but the font is larger and more spaced out than typical 12 point, single-spaced formats. This makes it easier to read - even on the pages where there are no photographs or illustrations. All of the artwork included in this book is historical; it’s not illustrated like an informational storybook. The photographs have dates and credits, the illustrations are most frequently political comments from newspapers of the time, and scans of relevant promotional booklets and posters are included. Though even the artwork is informational, the book does not seem boring or a heavy-handed history book.

The book is written fairly formally, but it does not make it hard to read. Because the subject is so interesting, it’s hard to feel like you’re learning something as you read this book. In “A Word About My Research,” Jim Murphy explains that he became interested in the topic because he wanted to learn about Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme. I think this is a great way to engage readers because he portrays himself as a regular guy, curious about the things around him. I think children can relate to this, and might even suggest reading this section before starting the book, as interesting as the hoax topic is on its own.

Personal Response
I’m big on conspiracy theories, and I love the idea of hoaxes and how they have been pulled off. I had never heard of the Cardiff Giant, so this book not only taught me a lot about that particular subject, but also gave me a great idea of how America was during this time. Despite being intrigued by the subject matter, I was also really drawn in to Murphy’s writing style, and look forward to reading more of his work.

Reviews & Awards
In a Booklist starred review, “Murphy shows how the controversy itself fueled the giant’s notoriety—to the extent that the figure’s ‘authenticity’ became such a non-issue that P.T. Barnum made a bundle displaying an openly made duplicate and to this day the original and several surviving copies remain local museum attractions. Illustrated with plenty of photos and images, and capped by summaries of the later lives of the major hoaxers, brief mentions of other pseudo-scientific hoaxes, detailed research notes, and a rich bibliography, this makes an entertaining and intriguing case study in how a seemingly minor incident can provide insight into both human psychology and large historical and cultural changes.”
     Publishers Weekly says “Although a significant number of players are involved, the narrative’s 12 chapters move swiftly, with period photos helping to break up the text-heavy pages (printed in brown ink). Contextualizing this scam against the wider backdrop of the Gilded Age, Murphy adeptly explains how hoaxes like the Cardiff Giant helped accelerate reforms, such as the establishment of professional scientific organizations and journals.”

Connections & Activities
Jim Murphy mentions many other hoaxes at the end of his book; any number of these would inspire students to research on their own. It would also be interesting to open a conversation with children about what they consider a hoax, since there are many modern conspiracy theories that aren’t addressed in this book.
     Jim Murphy has written many other books that children may be interested in, such as:
     The Great Fire. ISBN 9780439203074
     Blizzard!: The Storm That Changed America. ISBN 9780590673105
     An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. ISBN 9780395776087

Read it for yourself!
Murphy, Jim. 2012. The Giant and How He Humbugged America. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 9780439691840

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