The Book Reviews – Website

August 6, 2008

Arctic Explorer The Story of Matthew Henson

Arctic Explorer The Story of Matthew Henson

Author: Jeri Ferris

Page Length: 75

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Biography

REVIEW: Arctic Explorer is a biography about Matthew Henson, the faithful side-kick of Robert Peary. Henson was by all accounts just as knowledgeable and resourceful as his partner Peary. However, Henson never earned the true respect and reputation he deserved until after his death. This lack of respect was due in large part to Henson’s skin color. Henson was an African-American and during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, African-Americans were not regarded as equals among whites. Peary described the contradictions of these American times by saying that he and Henson both could eat from the same frozen chunk of walrus and sleep in the same igloo in the Arctic, yet they both could not eat in the same room or sleep in the same hotel in America!

Never-the-less, Peary regarded Henson as a source of strength, even if Peary could not or would not voice this in public. Both Henson and Peary journeyed numerous times to Greenland, as a part of the North Greenland Expedition, in attempts to break land travel records. They completed several treks successfully, however their biggest goal was to be the first humans to journey to the North Pole.

On their journeys through Greenland, Henson and Peary ate walrus meat, witnessed Inuit women chew the fat off of animal skin to make clothing, and saw Inuit mothers clean their dirty babies the way a cat cleans her own young. Henson in particular got to know the Inuit culture as the Arctic natives thought Henson was an Inuit due to his dark skin. Henson and Peary learned about the Inuits fear of two main spirits: Kokoyah (The Spirit of the Ice Cap) & Tornasuk (The Spirit of the Frozen Sea). The spirits’ powers came in the form of blizzards, cracking ice-caps, and frigid temperatures.

Page 66 marks the several attempts Henson and Peary made at reaching the North Pole. April 6, 1909 marks the date in which Peary states that he and Henson finally reached the North Pole. However, the accuracy of this statement is still not confirmed by all questioning sources.

To further muddy things, Dr. Frederick Cook (who had been on some of Peary’s expeditions) claimed to have reached the North Pole even prior to Peary returning to America from his successful North Pole expedition. However, as time elapsed, it became evident that there was absolutely no evidence to support Dr. Cook’s claim. In time, Peary and Henson would get the recognition they deserved.

Peary passed away much earlier than Henson. Matthew Henson went on to lead a fairly quiet yet content life and was ultimately buried next to his Arctic partner, Robert Peary, in Arlington National Cemetery.

I enjoyed this book very much. Stories of the Arctic are so descriptive in their depictions of the frigid cold and of the lack of bare necessities. Strength of character and physique are a requirement to survival in these conditions. Matthew Henson was a man of great character. He was an African-American who was well liked by all and displayed talent with the best of all men. His loyalty and bravery are an inspiration to anyone. He is a classic example of what it means to be a true partner and companion.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: simile (pages 17 & 44), reading a map, reading captions, photographs to reinforce text, using a bibliography, using an index, & identifying setting

RELATED BOOKS: Far North, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, & The North Pole


RELATED WEBSITES: (NOAA website of the North Pole) (Greenland tourism) (Inuit history)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

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