A fictionalised tale of the real life of Matthew Henson, the first man to reach the North Pole. This is a powerful story of one man’s struggle to carve out a life for himself against the odds.
Matthew Henson left home when he was eleven years old – he would’ve left before but his stepmother beat him so hard he couldn’t walk. He’s determined to find a better life but he’s a black man in the late 1800s and opportunities are extremely limited. Matthew, however, is lucky. A chance encounter with a ship’s Captain allows him to go to sea and the Captain’s kindness enables Matthew to learn to read and obtain many other useful skills. Then he meets Commander Robert E Perry and, during the years that follow, he becomes Perry’s right hand man on many treacherous attempts to reach the North Pole. It takes almost two decades to succeed. The other men on the expedition return to the USA as a heroes but Matthew’s achievements are largely ignored – all because of the colour of his skin.
Simply told from a first person perspective, this is a powerful story of one man’s struggle to carve a life for himself despite the system’s discrimination against his race. This is a short book (just 118 pages) and we are, therefore, only given brief glimpses into Matthew’s experiences at various stage of his life. These are, however, carefully selected and cleverly told to have maximum impact. For example, the book opens with a brief but powerful account of the beatings Matthew has to endure from his stepmother. Then, in his long walk to Washington DC, we are provided with a fleeting yet powerful description of his hunger and cold and his welcome that consists of a hard kick in the ribs from a policeman.
Matthew does finally find a handful of people willing to show him some kindness in return for hard work. And hard work is something that characterises Matthew’s life throughout the book. Indeed, he never ceases to work and learn, seizing every opportunity to develop a new skill or learn a new language. By the time he reaches adulthood, his skills and experiences are considerable. Yet, despite this, again and again he is denied the chance to better himself purely because of the colour of his skin.
It’s hard not to be frustrated by Matthew’s acceptance of his situation but I think that’s exactly what author, Catherine Johnson, wants. She is clearly using Matthew’s story to highlight to modern readers quite how badly black people were treated during this period. This becomes particularly impactful when we reach the book’s climax: Matthew becomes the first man to read the North Pole but his achievement remains largely ignored for many years.
Published ahead of Black History Month, this book brings the African-America experience vividly alive and is likely to be a useful tool for teachers. It helps that this is also part of Barrington Stoke’s super-readable series of books that are deliberately designed to help emergent, reluctant and dyslexic readers unlock the love of reading.
If you enjoyed this and would like to read another historical story from Barrington Stoke’s super-readable series, I’d strongly recommend you get yourself a copy of Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer. Alternatively, if Catherine Johnson’s writing style appeals, why not try her action-packed story about slavery in Britain – Freedom by Catherine Johnson.
Publication date: September 2018
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Author’s website: Catherine Johnson