New book reimagines America’s folk history

What causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall? If you didn’t know, you might worry that these life-giving events could suddenly stop. That’s why many ancient myths formed, and why humans keep making myths in modern times. The amount we don’t know only grows as we open new realms of knowledge.

Myths give us power over the unimaginable. So how will we use this power?

That’s the question at the heart of “Bunyan and Henry: or, The Beautiful Destiny,” a new novel by Mark Cecil (Pantheon, 2024). Many of us grew up hearing the folk tales of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan or the steel-driving man John Henry. As kids, we were told these men weren’t real, but that they symbolized the real people who built America. Yet, these stories let the powerful forces manipulating these fictional strongmen off the hook.

Did Paul really have to clear cut the whole forest? Did John Henry have to work himself to death to prove worthy of a decent living? The details withheld from these myths made America, too.

Cecil, a former journalist, now teaches creative writing. He also produces and hosts a book podcast called “The Thoughtful Bro.” I spoke to him in January via phone from his home in Massachusetts. His debut novel began as a series of improvised bedtime stories told to his children.

“They’d always ask if the story was real,” said Cecil. “I think if you believe a story is real it puts a different part of your brain in motion. But if you know it’s not real and you’re never even given the impression it’s real, it becomes about emotional, spiritual, philosophical truth — those inner things.”

Nevertheless, Paul Bunyan — here just a tall, strong man with a good wife and a hard job — encounters familiar places in Cecil’s story. The thrumming metropolis called “The Windy City” bears some resemblance to Chicago. The mining village, “Lumptown,” while distinct and certainly more dystopian than our Mesabi Iron Range, includes features we’d recognize from the old days of mining. Prairies and farmland aren’t far away.

“I wanted a story that rhymed with reality but that wasn’t reality,” said Cecil. “A big story that lets your mind wander into a dream.”

In many ways, “Bunyan and Henry” centers on a mineral called “Lump.” Big industry starts mining lump shortly before the story begins. It’s a powerful energy source that triggers a technological revolution. It also has miraculous medicinal uses. But it’s difficult to mine and causes significant environmental damage.

Cecil doesn’t oversimplify the nature of Lump, however. 

“It’s the devil’s bargain we have with extractive capitalism,” said Cecil. “It’s winter in New England and I’m wearing flip-flops and shorts because I have heat. We’re all incredible beneficiaries of this extractive economy. I suppose it could be read as anti-capitalist and anti-fossil fuels, but the book is a little more complicated than that.”

In the story, childhood trauma haunts the miner Paul Bunyan. An injury to his foot makes work difficult. When a terrible disease caused by Lump threatens his wife, he must bet everything on a vision that came to him from a mythical creature called the Chilali. The Chilali leads him to a new friend, John Henry, and a powerful enemy, the billionaire El Boffo, who runs Lumptown and seemingly everything else.

“That was another advantage of this non-historical way of writing,” said Cecil. “I could speak in a timeless language that still feels relevant to the conversations we’re having today.”

“Bunyan and Henry” walks a fine line between timeless and timeliness. His tale is a searing modern parable about justice. Paul and John journey through mines, jails, professional fighting, secret societies and the halls of power. Along the way, they encounter issues at the forefront of modern political and cultural debate, but the dreamy style lets you interpret these matters in your own way.

The book reminds us that myths transmit knowledge and values across generations. For a myth to be righteous, it must be true at heart.

“Bunyan and Henry: or, The Beautiful Destiny” will be available at bookstores on March 26. You can preorder the book at Cecil’s website,, where you may also learn about his book events in Duluth and Bemidji this upcoming June.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 23, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Joe musich says

    Wow. The video alone and of course your writing seems to draw me in on the book. The book seems as it is also as ripe as a berry to become a graphic novel. Thanks for the tip. I will pick one up. I might look at the audio book as well.

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