Subtitled ‘The Matthew Henson story’, Catherine Johnson has fictionalised the life of ordinary man, yet heroic explorer and adventurer Matthew Henson and created an intriguing, highly readable, gripping novella of the incredible story of how illiterate eleven-year-old Matthew Henson became the first man to reach the North Pole.
Actually there continues to be contention over who really reached the North Pole first, with it often cited that either Dr Frederick Cook or US explorer Robert Peary reached it in the years 1908 and 1909 respectively. Matthew Henson was in Robert Peary’s expedition, and according to Johnson’s story, made it there first. But his name and achievement were suppressed for many years because of the colour of his skin. He was a black man, and people were disinclined to believe that Peary had put his trust in a black man – both at the time and for many years later.
The story reads almost as a rags to riches fairy tale, in that Henson was beaten by his stepmother and ran away aged 11 with nothing to his name. A kindly restaurant owner took him on, then a sea captain who saw potential in him, and taught him to read and write, and thanks to Henson’s extraordinary motivation, his adventures to different lands, and above all his willingness to learn and understand other people, he transformed himself into a daring and intrepid explorer.
Johnson’s story is gripping for both being based on truth, but also for its telling, which has clever pacing to illustrate the passage of time, and simple, yet extraordinary prose (her descriptions of the polar landscape and its dangerous crevices are awesome). It also teaches compassion and respect – Henson’s treatment of others on his travels, especially indigenous people, (his willingness to learn from their expertise rather than treat them as subservient) is part of what made him so successful, enabling him to go from impoverished youth to sailor to navigator, craftsman to explorer. Johnson cleverly inserts subtle parallels here, foreshadowing the plight of the black man with Henson’s freeing of a caged bird, and contrasting Henson’s deep respect for the ice and the Inuit with the disrespect he was shown in his Western world.
This is both a coming-of-age and an adventure story, but brought to life with evocative descriptions, an understanding of racial relations and social history at the beginning of the 20th century, and yet also the tiny acts of kindness that lead to world-changing events. Although not all plain sailing, Henson’s adventures highlight the importance of determination, patience and friendship. A fantastic story, illustrated with Katie Hickey’s vignettes on the bottom of each page highlighting which section of the narrative you’re in, that brings attention to a well-deserved hero. It just goes to show that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
The title is published by Barrington Stoke, who create readable books for reluctant or dyslexic readers with phenomenal storytelling. Explore it yourself here.
For those new to adventuring, Alistair Humphreys is an English adventurer whose first big adventure was cycling round the world. It took him four years, and he was the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Looking him up, I see that he is just a few days older than me, which puts me to shame as most days the furthest I go is about five kilometres.
Anyway, for those who want to be inspired, or live vicariously through books, you will want to read his stunning children’s book, Great Adventurers, in which Humphreys profiles 20 heroic explorers who have undertaken some of the most incredible journeys and expeditions in history.
The choice of adventurers is certainly broad and eclectic, ranging from Rick Hansen, the Paralympian who wheeled around the world, to Ibn Battuta, the 14th century explorer who visited more countries than Marco Polo, to Audrey Sutherland who paddled the Alaskan coastline on her first expedition at the age of 59.
Each adventurer is treated differently in the book, but with the same awe-inspiring imagination, attention-to-detail and simple storytelling. With full colour throughout, some of their adventures are drawn in cartoon comic-strips, others contain lists of kit equipment with illustrations, others a map of their route, and each is different. Dervla Murphy’s destinations are shown in an array of postcards, Ranulph Fiennes has a page of floating icebergs that give facts about his Transglobe Expedition. Colour pallettes distinguish each adventure from the next – Nellie Bly is illustrated with a delicious traditional sea-mint green, with illustrations and motifs echoing the time period – a distinctive wallpaper, the underwear she packed, a fake newspaper front page.
But I think one of my favourite things is the small box accompanying each adventurer that explains why Humphreys included that person. Some inclusions are for the person’s enthusiasm, others for their message of a slow and simple life, some for bravery and resourcefulness, and others are deeply personal to Humphreys but all model good adventuring in one way or another – even those who suffered terrible journeys.
This is a glorious non-fiction title that explains, explores and fascinates. With cartoon strips, maps, charts, varied layouts, illustrations, points of interest and colour, I was bowled over by the expeditions I read about as well as the production of the book. It seems Humphreys is not only good at adventuring.
Did I mention he’s also rowed the Atlantic, run six marathons through the Sahara, and crossed Iceland by foot and packraft? Although now he’s a pioneer of microadventures – a movement that encourages people to seek short, local adventures. That’s more like it – perhaps even with a book in hand? Take your adventure here.