Friday, August 31, 2012

"The Giant and How He Humbugged America" by Jim Murphy


*This review was based on a galley. Book will be released 10/1/2012.

Age: Young Adult, 10-14
Genre: Non-fiction, Historical

In 1869 in the farmland of Cardiff, New York, a rare and exciting discovery was unearthed from the property of William “Stub” Newell. While several men helped Newell dig a new well, they hit upon what they believed to be a large stone. Upon further investigation, the stone resembled an oversized human foot. With some more help, the men were able to unearth the entire body of what appeared to be a giant man who had been petrified (turned to stone).  Local Native American legends had told of a group called the Onondaga, who were stone giants that had terrorized the area long ago. Could this petrified man be a lost member of the Onondaga? Or was he proof of the existence of giants mentioned in the Bible? Either way, Stub Newell had a sensation on his hands with the discovery of what was called the “Cardiff Giant.”

He began charging people to come see this find, and as newspapers covered the story, more and more spectators came. The author believes the crowds were especially drawn to the news of the giant because of the dark times they were living indeaths in the civil war, the assassination of President Lincoln, and a massive economic depression. Murphy writes, “The Cardiff Giant offered readers something positive and inspiring to think about, something to distract them from more troubling news.” It may have been because of their thirst for good and interesting news that few people questioned the authenticity of the giant. Scientists examined it and some proclaimed it “positively absurd to consider this a fossil man,” while others called it “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country, and … deserving of the attention of archeologists.” The debate itself drew more attention to the giantand more money to Newell’s pockets. So was it a hoax, or was the giant truly a fossilized man? After much research, the author is able to proclaim the truth behind the mystery, leaving the reader to question the science and the people of a more na├»ve time.

In this book, Murphy has presented a true story many are probably unfamiliar with, and he has presented it well. Murphy seems to have used every resource at his disposal to gather facts from all sides of the story of the Cardiff Giant, as evidenced by his extensive bibliography of interviews, books, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I found it interesting to follow the story of the giant and its creators and to wonder about how so many people could have been so easily fooled. The photographs and replications of posters add greatly to the text and should help the young reader to better understand the goings-on and mood of the time. However, I am left wondering if young readers will be interested enough in this story to want to read it in the first place. It is aimed at ages 10-14 (grades 5-9), and the writing style seems to that level, but there is not a lot to draw a young reader in to the book. They have likely never heard of the subject, and unless they have a particular interest in oddities or hoaxes, probably wouldn’t want to read a whole 112-page book on it. The subject of the Cardiff Giant may have been better suited to a chapter in a book on oddities instead of carrying a text by itself.

Technical Note: I read this book as an electronic edition on a Nook e-reader, and it did not translate appropriately to the smaller format. The photos didn’t line up with their photo boxes and captions, often appearing on different pages entirely. Also, because of the column format, the text size was either very large or too small to read with no in between. However the appearance was fine on my computer screen.

Bibliographical Information:
Murphy, Jim. The Giant and How He Humbugged America. New York: Scholastic Press, 2012.

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