Secondary Sources to the Rescue!

There’s a common belief among new nonfiction writers that primary sources are the only way to find absolute facts. Secondary sources are assumed to be inferior, less trustworthy, less valuable.

I beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, I get a rush when I find primary sources. As kids in my school visits can attest, I’m downright giddy when I talk about turning the pages of original 19th-century newspapers or scrolling through microfilm. I’ve had palpable reactions while donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling Beautiful Jim Key scrapbooks at the Tennessee State Archives (Step Right Up), or when I found Lincoln’s handwritten letter with his duel terms (Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words). For each book’s research, I was reminded that primary sources are not a guarantee of accuracy.

The primary sources I uncovered while researching for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara were especially suspect.

First page of Lincoln’s 1842 letter with his duel terms, housed at the Library of Congress

 

When I found the first biography of Jean Francois Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had hit pay dirt. In the preface, the biographer claims that Blondin himself was part of the book’s creation. It was as close to an “as-told-to” account as I could ask for. If Blondin was feeding the author information and approving the content, the book was as good as a primary source. What a gold mine! Or so I thought!

Seems like everything ever written about The Great Blondin originated from this book, either directly or secondarily. I believed every word until I expanded my primary source search and dove into secondary sources with a critical eye. AND, luckily, I successfully tracked down a well-informed descendent of Blondin.

Following are just a few of the many inaccuracies found in the primary sources I turned to:

The 1862 collaborative biography claims that young Jean Francois was accidentally introduced to acrobatics and tightrope-walking when a traveling troupe camped near his French home. He purportedly taught himself the skills of acrobatics and funambulism and was quickly considered a prodigy. His parents sent him to L’Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon—a special school for acrobats.  By the age of nine, the biographer states, the future Blondin was orphaned. What a story! An orphan who grows up to be the best in his field. Unfortunately, much of the book was falsified.

My ultimate research revealed that, in truth, Blondin was part of the third acrobatic generation in his family. There was no circus camped near his home. He came to his vocation naturally and was part of his parents’ act even as a toddler. He literally grew up on the rope and on stage. As for the acrobatic school in Lyon—my research revealed no such school—a fact confirmed by Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

Later, the biography claims, as an adult sailing to the United States for a two-year acrobatic tour, Blondin proved the only person brave enough and strong enough to dive into the Atlantic during a raging storm to rescue a rich nobleman that had been pitched overboard.

Nope! Not true. According to the ship’s passenger list (another primary source), there was no nobleman. And, since there’s no other record of a storm during this sailing, I must assume the entire episode is an invention. 

As for the sad fact about Blondin becoming an orphan at age nine…you guessed it. It was false. Though his father died while Blondin was young, his mother lived into her 50’s, dying while adult Blondin was performing in the U.S.

 

I’ll never know if Blondin falsified his story for this biography or if the author falsified Blondin’s involvement and simply made stuff up. It was not the only primary source with unreliable information.

In 1859, Blondin carried Harry Colcord, his agent, across the Niagara River on his back, much to the amazement of all who witnessed it. Colcord’s later accounts of his experience, and of Blondin’s process of engineering his ropes, survive as primary sources. Unfortunately, Colcord was quite a storyteller, and he changed his details with each telling. In one interview, he was quoted as saying that sixteen horses powered a windlass on the American side of the Niagara River to stretch Blondin’s rope. I believed it, hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I subconsciously wanted it to be true because of the drama of the scene.  Illustrator Adam Gustavson even created a gorgeous spread depicting the equine laborers. Then I discovered that it was false. There were no horses used in the stretching process. Grrr! Poor Adam had to change his illustration.

We cannot assume that primary sources are accurate. Sometimes, the creator has a biased perspective or a limited perspective or, naively, incorrect facts. Sometimes, the source is exaggerated or altogether falsified for dramatic effect.

This funny newspaper line made it into my book
This one claims that Blondin fell to his death at Niagara
This report claims there was no such man as Blondin

 

Newspapers, too, are notoriously inconsistent. You can’t imagine the frustration of finding wildly different reports about the size of Blondin’s walking rope—from 1 1/2″ to 7″ diameter, wide, circumference, thick, around—even the units of measure were inconsistent. And, don’t get me started about the lack of reportage about Blondin’s process of engineering his rope across the gorge. What details do exist are also inconsistent and missing chunks of information. For those missing details, there were no primary sources to refer to.

Secondary sources 

The best secondary sources result from the distillation and evaluation of information from many sources and different perspectives. While a primary source is like seeing facts through one rigid lens, a good secondary source is like a carefully curated panoramic view.

Had I relied solely on primary sources for King of the Tightrope, I would have invariably perpetuated falsehoods. Thanks to modern experts, engineers, scholarly analysis, and a family connection, I was able to uncover the true story about The Great Blondin and his notable feats at Niagara, and the STEAM connection that threads my narrative together. I can feel confident that my book—a secondary source—will provide accurate information going forward. Had my topic been purely science or technology-based, it would have been equally important. Consider how breakthroughs of the past would be viewed today.

Dig for those primary sources, friends. But don’t stop there. Look for quality secondary sources that will help you form a more complete and accurate picture of your topic. You’ll feel triumphant when your true story comes into focus.

You can read more about my primary and secondary research on this Knowledge Quest blog for AASL.

It took a lot of wrong information to get to the truth
Research binders for King of the Tightrope

Reverse-Engineering an Engineering Process from the Past

They are short and for kids, but nonfiction picture books can require the sleuthing skills of Veronica Mars, the puzzling wizardry of Sherlock Holmes, and the science chops of Bill Nye.

When I set out to write about how The Great Blondin engineered his tightrope across the Niagara Gorge in 1859, I hoped to find the honey pot of details in the countless newspaper articles I uncovered. But instead of a step-by-step reveal, I faced scattered and inconsistent details and humongous gaps in information. Though my picture book narrative couldn’t possibly include every single step, I needed to understand them, to ensure accuracy and a you-are-there sense of tension. Piecing those steps together required that I step out of my comfort zone and into the world of STEMs. Beginning with rope.

The Mysterious STEM of Ropes

You’d think that the simplest detail to nail down would be the rope Blondin performed on, right? Afterall, witnesses could touch the “hawser.” Alas, though most sources correctly estimated the length of the walking rope to be ~1300’ feet long, the rope’s circumference was another matter. Reporters claimed it was 1.5-inches, two, three, 3.25, 3.5, four, six, ten-inches “wide,” “thick,” “diameter,” “around,” “large,” “circumference.” Oy vey! What a snarl to untangle. Was it really that important? Absolutely! There was only one way to solve this hempen-braided mystery, 160-years after the event. I turned to an engineer. Specifically, one with a vested interest in my project—Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

The blessed planets aligned for this fortuitous connection. Jean-Louis (thankfully, an English-speaker) and I exchanged clues from historical accounts, then he tapped into his expertise to determine the tension/breaking rate of fiber ropes of different sizes until the mystery was solved. Historical clues + Modern science. Voila! Now I could accurately state that The Great Blondin’s walking rope was 3.25” diameter, or ten+ inches circumference (circumference= diameter X pi [3.1459]). That concrete detail affected every step of Blondin’s process, including the 40,000’ of other ropes. It seems like a lot of effort for something as simple as rope, but accuracy matters. For classrooms, I hope my STEM research mystery inspires a hands-on approach to learning math and engineering concepts.

It’s All About the Questions

Now that the rope mystery was solved, I extracted more research clues to determine necessary questions. How did Blondin and his helpers get the walking rope from the American shore to the Canadian shore in a rowboat? How far upstream did they have to begin to compensate for the wicked current, in those days before human intervention, when 1.5 million gallons of water per second flowed over the Niagara Falls? How did the men transport, attach, lift, transfer, tie, splice, stretch each rope for its intended purpose? Step by step?

Looking back, I see an evolution of my own thought-process in my early diagrams and moodling, often with my engineer-son’s help. The engineering calculations were over my head, to be sure, but my inner Veronica Mars embraced the challenge of connecting the proverbial dots.

Once Blondin’s process was nailed down, I could put Blondin on his rope. Almost.

The Science of Balance

I couldn’t write about a rope-walker without feeling rope beneath my own feet, so I found a four-foot-long, 2 ½”-inch diameter manila rope (the largest available). I walked back and forth on the rope, as it rotated under my feet, and I struggled to keep my balance. More questions emerged: What is balance? How does a balance pole help a tightrope walker? Suddenly, I was a kid again, wobbling on a balance beam, a cavaletti, that crazy swinging playground bridge—oblivious to concepts of gravity, inertia, mass—the secret recipe to keeping me upright. I like to think that, had I read a story like King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara at that time, I would have been inspired to solve the mystery of my own STEM connection.

I encourage kids to think critically and to embrace historical and STEM topics when I visit schools. To help educators, there’s a curriculum guide, a one-page related STEM glossary, and two experiments to inspire students’ inner Mars/Holmes/Nye.
Find the full curriculum guide and more information at http://www.donnajanellbowman.com/book/king-of-the-tightrope. Follow me at  https://www.facebook.com/donnajanellbowmanauthor and on Twitter @donnajbbwrites__________________________________________________________________________

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of award-winning and lauded nonfiction books, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018). STEAM-infused King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, 2019) released in October 2019. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys mentoring and inspiring writers of all ages, especially during school visits. Donna lives in Central Texas where she does NOT walk on a tightrope.

Author’s Note & Afterword for King of the Tightrope

The back matter for King of the Tightrope is fabulously designed by the smart folks at Peachtree Publishing, but there’s more to the story than fit the limited pages available. In the Author’s Note and Afterword below, you’ll learn a bit more about the uncovered history of Jean Francois Gravelet, The Great Blondin. Watch for other posts about the specific STEAM connections.

Author’s Note:

One night in 2010, I was making dinner while a television special about the history of Niagara Falls kept me company. I remained at my task until the program narrator mentioned that a man named Jean-François Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, performed on a tightrope over the Niagara River in 1859. The Blondin segment lasted one or two minutes—long enough to grab me. I had to learn more.

Research involved standing on ropes

My pursuit of Blondin’s story, especially his step-by-step process at Niagara, proved challenging, as historical research usually is. I bought manila ropes so that I could experience them under my feet. To get into the head of a tightrope walker, I read and watched interviews with modern funambulists like Philippe Petit (the man who tightroped between the World Trade Centers) and The Flying Wallendas. I dug into the past through U.S. and Canadian newspaper articles and eye-witness accounts of Blondin’s performances. Unfortunately, those sources contained conflicting, misleading, and missing details. When I located the first biography about Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had struck gold.

This biography became the central source from which all later biographical information about Blondin was drawn. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the biography was partly fictionalized, and those fictional elements were perpetuated for almost 160 years.

Researching at the Niagara Falls Public Library

To distill the binders full of information that I had collected down to the most credible sources about how Blondin engineered his rope, and to fill in the missing pieces, I first turned to my eldest son Justin, who had recently earned an engineering degree. Documented reports and photographs in hand, we brainstormed possibilities and logical assumptions, while he sketched and employed physics calculations that went over my head. Though Blondin relied mostly on his intuitive knowledge of rope and rigging to determine how he would stretch his rope across the Niagara Gorge, to deconstruct the process, a century and a half later, required an engineer’s thought process. Actually, it required the logic of two engineers.

I was fortunate to connect with Blondin’s Great-Great-Grandson in France. As luck would have it, Jean-Louis is a fluent English speaker, a brilliant retired engineer, AND the author of a well-researched, not-yet-published French biography about Blondin, which he kindly shared with me. Eureka! With his help and expertise, the missing pieces of Blondin’s life and his Niagara rope process slowly fell into place. Jean-Louis’ input, support, and encouragement made this book infinitely better. Now, I am pleased to help him correct the historical record about his ancestor.

Process aside, what’s most notable about The Great Blondin is what his remarkable feats teach us about imagination, determination, and the will to succeed.

Afterword:

Despite the perpetuated inaccuracies about Jean-François Gravelet, he was born into an acrobatic family in 1824. It is said that he made his first public appearance at fifteen months old when his father pushed him in a wheelbarrow on a tightrope at the Coronation of France’s Charles, X. At the age of four, Jean-François climbed a slant rope toward his older sister who was experiencing troubles on the rope. The public took notice. At age eight, Jean-François performed for the King of Sardinia, and continued to perform with his family throughout France and beyond.

To ensure safety during any rope-walking endeavor, Jean-François learned how to properly rig and attach his own ropes, and he learned how to choose the size of ropes that would hold up at different heights, distances, and conditions. Though his older sister Pauline and younger brother Louis were also performers and rope walkers, Jean-François was destined to become the most famous rope-walker in the world. An interview with Blondin, published thirty years after the Niagara feats, claimed that Blondin had stood on his head so often on a rope that a ridge had formed in his skull.

As a young man, Jean-François married a French acrobat named Rosalie with whom he had four children, though two of the children did not survive.

In 1851, he said goodbye to his family and boarded the Germania to sail across the Atlantic for a two-year American performance tour with the Gabriel Ravel troupe. Either because the name Gravelet sounded too similar to Ravel, or because the men worried that American audiences would not be able to pronounce the name Gravelet, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jean-François took the name Blondin—The Great Blondin. He could not have anticipated that his two-year tour would turn into ten years, beginning with Niblo’s Garden in New York. Sadly, Blondin never saw his French family again.

Blondin, remarkably strong at only 5’6” tall and about 145 pounds, performed on his Niagara rope at least seventeen times during the summers of 1859 and 1860. In 1860, he moved his rope to the opposite side of the Railroad Suspension Bridge, directly over the deadly whirlpool rapids. Both years, besides acrobatics on the rope, he performed increasingly difficult and dangerous stunts, including carrying a cookstove and preparing an omelette, carrying a table and chair to enjoy a glass of bubbly, and carrying his manager on his back. He walked across the Niagara rope on stilts. He balanced on a chair (that plunged into the river), he performed at night with Bengal lights attached to his pole (they fell into the river, forcing him to walk in darkness above the rapids), and he walked with his feet in peach baskets and his arms and legs in chains. In September of 1860, the Prince of Wales watched in awe but refused Blondin’s offer to carry him across the gorge on his back.

Amateur rope walkers tried to compete with Blondin for attention and money, but none compared to the elegance, strength, and expertise of The Great Blondin.

While in the United States, Blondin married a young performer named Charlotte Sophia Lawrence in Boston, with whom he had five children. In 1861, shortly after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, which sparked the Civil War, Blondin and his family boarded The Bremen and sailed to England in time for his contracted performances at London’s Crystal Palace, which is where his use of a bicycle on the rope was first documented. Blondin purchased a home in Ealing, England, and named it Niagara Villa.

Blondin performed on the tightrope for the rest of his life, eventually claiming that performing on a bicycle on the rope was his most dangerous feat, while performing on a balanced chair was the most difficult. He continued to challenge himself with feats of ever-increasing danger, like performing between the masts of a sailing ship, pushing a live lion, or his children, and sometimes trundling fireworks (which once exploded while he was on the rope). Though he chose a lifetime of dangerous stunts as a career, Jean Francois never allowed a safety net, saying “the danger is half the fun.”  For his extraordinary career, he was presented with multiple gold medals and awards, including a Spanish knighthood.

What Do You Do When Your Book is Scooped?

I was honored to be featured on author Kirby Larson’s Friend Friday blog about how I was scooped (or pre-empted) on several books. Click here or scroll down to read about how choosing a new focus made King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara a much better book. For a chance to win a copy of King of the Tightrope, click on the Rafflecopter link on Kirby’s site here.

Friend Friday

Nobody warned me that falling in love with an idea worth writing about is risky. Nobody warned me that I could spend years researching and writing a book only to be scooped by another writer, as if they snuck into my headspace via Harry Potter’s pensieve. The reality is that the ideas swirling around us can be manifested by many writers within a short time. Once scooped, a writer has two choices: Abandon their project or commit to differentiating it.

I’ve been scooped many times. Some ideas simply didn’t have a strong enough hold to embolden me through the challenges, so they were set aside. For others, I’ve been willing to go to the proverbial mat with my muse. Such was the case when a competing picture book about Dr. William Key and Beautiful Jim Key hit shelves, years into my work on what would become Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low, 2016). You couldn’t pry my heart and hands away from that story, so I did the work to make my book different. Deeper. Better than it was originally. Thank goodness!

Most recently, a fabulous (darn it!) picture book biography about Jean-Francois Gravelet, The Great Blondin, hit shelves in 2016, just as my now-soon-to-be-released book, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, October 2019), was going to contract. Cosmic coincidences happen, both in timing and similar story approaches. After my wee meltdown, my editor and I quickly decided that the best remedy was a new focus for my narrative.

The Great Blondin on his rope above the Niagara River

The goal of any picture book biography is to share a true story, anchored by documented facts. A story. Not exposition. Not a cradle-to-grave information dump. My original focus in King of the Tightrope was the remarkable and daring feats that Blondin performed high over the Niagara River in 1859 and 1860. Though the determination and imagination themes remained in-tact, through re-envisioning the story, the focus shifted to the hows. In those days before electricity and technology, how did the funambulist accomplish this engineering feat? And why? How did he fenagle a 1300-foot-long, ten-inch-circumference rope across the raging Niagara River? How did he get the rope from the water to the cliffs? How did he stretch it, tighten it, stabilize it? How did he balance himself in that windy space?

Locating the unmarked spot of Blondin’s 1859 rope required investigation of print details and hikes along the American & Canadian cliffs.

The involved STEAM concepts required a new level of research that included engineers, a study of ropes and knots, a search for 19th century windlass options, a finer-toothed-comb cull through historical newspaper accounts and library archives, and a fortuitous connection with The Great Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France—someone I now consider a friend.

The new research led to revelations about fictionalized biographies and perpetuated falsehoods about Blondin. Writers and scholars have unwittingly relied on those falsehoods for almost 160-years. I had relied on them, too, until my new story focus required a deeper dive.

Nobody will warn you that getting scooped is a tantrum-worthy inconvenience. Re-envisioning one’s narrative takes time and effort. It is a balancing act in itself, but the view is mighty nice when you reach the other side.

 Stay tuned for posts about the depth of my research and my discovery of perpetuated falsehoods from primary sources.

I’m Teaching a Picture Book Biography Class

Word got out about the success of my 2018 online picture book biography class, so I’m bringing it back.

If you’d like to join my class, facilitated through a Zoom virtual classroom, click here for more information.

I’m not just a fan of picture book biographies, I dedicated my MFA critical thesis to the craft challenges involved. I’ve also written a stack of picture book biographies, including multi-award-winning Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness,NCSS Notable Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, and forthcoming King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara. You can learn more about my books by clicking the Books page on this site. You’ll find testimonials from previous students by scrolling to the bottom of this page. I hope to see in class!

                In this class, we will cover:
How to identify and analyze mentor texts
* Identifying expository vs. narrative approaches
* Finding the scope/focus/angle of your story
* Crafting a voice unique to your story
* Identifying your story’s theme & incorporating a throughline
* Character and narrative arc
* Various structures available
* POV & perspectives
* The nonfiction/fiction threshold
* Research considerations
* Back matter
* Guest authors will join us for class #5 and #6

Two weeks before class begins, I’ll send a pre-class reading list, syllabus, and access to the private Facebook group.

Click here to register or email me with questions.