Inspiring Young Readers
Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story by Catherine Johnson
Appropriately enough for the start of Black History Month, Barrington Stoke’s ‘super-readable’ series has published Catherine Johnson’s excellent fictionalisation of the true story of how an American black man pioneered Arctic exploration and became the first man to reach the North Pole. Not that most of us would know it though because his fantastic story has been, until recently years, written out of history and his deeds have gone unacknowledged.
Matthew Henson’s story is remarkable. After running away from brutal conditions at home he found sanctuary at Janey Moore’s Café in Washington, where he cleaned and did odd jobs so well that he became an indispensable and hard-working member of the café’s ‘family’. But as the years past and he grew, his thoughts turned to adventure and he became obsessed with the idea of going to sea and experiencing all the world had to offer.
Soon he found a Captain who treated him well and he became an experienced hand on board ship – it was a happy time for Matthew until the Captain was taken ill and died. Swapping over to another ship he found life much more difficult and the treatment inhumane – so he jumped ship and went back to civilian life.
Here he learned an important lesson. Whenever he was at sea he felt he was treated as an equal but back on land the fact of his blackness led to discrimination and dead-end jobs.
But, he clung to his dream and one day a piece of good fortune led him to be offered the opportunity to go back to sea – this time with the explorer Robert Peary who was raising funds for his attempt to reach the North Pole.
Matthew and Peary became close, trusted friends and it was Henson who was the practical one – building sleds, learning how to run dogs and making firm friends with the Inuit people - who provided vital support to the team.
Henson and Peary did eventually become the first to arrive at the North Pole – although they were initially robbed of their rightful public acknowledgement by another explorer who lied about having been there first. His lies were believed primarily because no-one could accept a team consisting of one white man, a black man and two Inuits could possibly have achieved such a feat.
Eventually the truth came out and Peary and the rest of the white team were awarded medals but Henson, who was the real hero and who was actually first there, got nothing. Even worse than nothing because his role was erased from history until forty years later, in 1944, when he was finally awarded his medal.
As far as I can see, his invisibility has continued to mean his achievements have largely gone unnoticed in the popular stories of Polar exploration. Hopefully Catherine Johnson’s wonderful first person recreation of Matthew’s story will make a generation of younger readers aware of what he achieved. Uncovering the forgotten and hidden histories of those who have been marginalised is a serious and necessary undertaking and this book is a great addition to that genre.