Skip to content

Truth is Strange

You may think of the nonfiction section as the sane part of a library collection. No impossible plots, no unexplained mysteries — just facts. But if you know where to look, you can find plenty of unexpected weirdness lurking within those factual books.

For example, tucked in the medical section is a book titled Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood (2005 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults), written by Julie Gregory. Munchausen by Proxy, or Factitious Disorder by Proxy, is a condition in which a caretaker deliberately harms their dependent, like a parent who feeds matches to their child to create symptoms of illness (true story). In this book, Julie Gregory remembers a childhood of doctor’s offices, medical tests, and hospital beds. She recalls a conversation between her mother and a doctor:

“Well, Ms. Gregory, we’ve got good news. The Holter monitor shows no significant findings that lead us to believe that Julie has a heart condition requiring further tests. Nothing outside a normal parameter.” The hospital doctor is following the zigzags on my chart, showing us what he can’t find. Mom slaps her leg.

“What? What do you mean you can’t find anything?” She counts on her fingers the number of things leading up to this moment. “Dr. Kate called you, she told you this kid had a racing heart, was out of breath all the time. She told me we were going to get helped here, that we’d finally be able to get to the bottom of things. What are you trying to tell me here, that this kid is normal? That I’m making this up?”

It’s tempting to believe that Gregory is making it up. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? True events can challenge credulity. That’s why the nonfiction section of your library can contain some very unbelievable stories.

Science 1994 Aug 26;265(5176):1159

Take the story of Phineas Gage. John Fleischman relates the facts of this amazing medical phenomenon in his book, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science (2003 Best Books for Young Adults). In 1848, Phineas was blasting away rock to make a path for the railroad tracks. He was working with a tamping iron, a long pole used to pack loose gunpowder deep within the rock to be blasted. On this day, Phineas turns his head as the tamping rod slides through his hands and ignites a spark as it slides into the rock. The tamping rock shoots right through Phineas’s head — and stays there.

This is when the plot twists away from the expected. Phineas remains lucid despite the rod that has plunged through his brain. An hour after the accident, “Phineas is a gruesome sight. Bleeding freely from his forehead and inside his mouth, Phineas looks to Dr. Harlow like a wounded man just carried in from a battlefield. Yet Phineas is alert, uncomplaining, and still telling anyone who’ll listen about the accident.”

Evening Standard/AP Photo

With nonfiction, readers travel to real worlds that are usually inaccessible, even if they exist right between our walls. Author Robert Sullivan, in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (2005 Alex Award winner), took some time to study rats that live in a certain alley in New York City. Rats are pretty much as disgusting as you might expect, but Sullivan weaves an intriguing story. For example, have you ever heard of rat fights?

In the 1830s, one thousand people came to America through New York City. Most of these people had nothing. Their homes were barely livable — crowded windowless rooms, slapped-together shanties, and underground pits. For many years, a sporting event held in the saloons was watching dogs fight rats. Jocko the Wonder Dog was said to have killed one hundred rats in five minutes and twenty-eight seconds. Rats fighting rats was considered a slower sport, more suitable for women and children.

There are also cultures that are hidden from the casual traveler, such as in Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China (2008 Alex Award winner). Polly was a skinny guy who decided to live with a sect of Buddhist monks in China and learn the art of Kung Fu. Who would have imagined such a journey could produce such a hysterically funny, irreverent story!

Polly encounters all kinds of monks, and all kinds of beliefs. Here’s a sample conversation between one of the monks and Polly:

“The sixth race will possess a higher rate of consciousness. People would be able to read each other’s thoughts, so there will be no more miscommunication. Without miscommunication, there will be no more violence, no more war.”

“Really? I would think that knowing what other people actually think about you would make violence more likely, not less.”

There are fictional accounts about kids who accompany their families into a witness protection program. But it’s more interesting to read about a true example. Father and daughter team John and Cylin Busby co-authored their personal experiences in The Year We Disappeard. After a police officer name John Busby was shot by dangerous and powerful men in a small Massachusetts town, the whole family required twenty-four hour police protection. The kids had a police car that followed their school bus to and from school. Cylin Busby remembers:

We had all been caught up in the urgency of Dad’s injury and his “accident” that I almost hadn’t thought about the reason behind all this security. But in the dark, alone, Richie’s words that day in the lunch room came back to haunt me: “Maybe they’ll come to school and shoot you, too.” Dad’s shooting hadn’t been an accident. Someone had wanted to kill him. I was just starting to understand this. Someone hated him. The thought made my chest ache. I just couldn’t imagine someone hating my dad that much, wanting to hurt him this way. And now I was starting to see that they hated me, too, and my brothers. They wanted to kill all of us — really kill us. We couldn’t go anywhere without the police.

And how about adventure? If you read the following account in a novel, you might find it hard to believe.

About two weeks into his journey, he had been traveling across ice that lined the shore of a bay. Suddenly, a violent storm erupted and the wind came at him with near hurricane force. Then the ice he was standing upon broke free. Before he knew what was happening, Tilton and the icy “raft” he was perched upon were blown out into the middle of the bay. And there he remained — for three full days! There was nothing he could do. To try to swim back to land by plunging into the winter Arctic waters meant instant disaster. Just as he became certain that he was about to perish from exposure and starvation, the wind changed direction and he was blown back to shore.

But it really happened, as related in Martin W. Sandler’s The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure. There are many incredible survival stories found in the nonfiction area. And don’t forget biographies! You may be surprised to discover the true stories behind the myths. For example, you might have heard that Benedict Arnold was hanged for treason. But was he?

Not Benedict Arnold
The truth comes out in The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery (2012 Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner) by Steve Sheinkin.

Most of the titles listed above were featured as winners of a YALSA award or were on a selection list. Check out the lists below and see what other strange-but-true stories you find. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy….

— Diane Colson, currently reading The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton and listening to Creole Belle by James Lee Burke

The following two tabs change content below.

Diane Colson

I have been a librarian working with youth since 1998, beginning at the Alachua County Library District, and later at Palm Harbor Library and Nashville Public Library. Possibly because of the edgy nature of teen literature, or possibly because my maturation process crashed at the age of fifteen years-old, I love YA books. And I enjoy working with YAs as well, although I'm just as happy doing Toddler Time. By some good fortune, I have served on a number of YALSA selection committees (Outstanding Books for the College Bound, Popular Paperbacks, Alex Award, Odyssey Award, Nonfiction Award, Morris Award, and Printz) as well as a smattering of process committees. Currently I am serving on the YALSA Board. .I also review books for VOYA, School Library Journal's Adult4Teen Blog, BookPage, and Booklist.