Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson

Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson

Dolores Johnson
Nonfiction  Series
For ages 10 and up
National Geographic, 2006   ISBN: 978-0792279143

Matthew was only thirteen years old when he found himself orphaned. He left school and got himself a job as a dishwasher, the best kind of job that was available at that time for a young African American boy. Matthew found the work to be so tedious and boring that he walked forty miles to the port city of Baltimore hoping to find something to do that was more interesting.

Luckily a sea captain called Captain Childs was impressed by Matthew's determination to better himself and he hired the boy to work on his steamship, the Katie. In addition to giving Matthew a job, Captain Childs also chose to give Matthew lessons every day. Among other things Matthew became an excellent carpenter, he learned to read and write, and he developed good navigation skills.

All of these abilities would serve him well when he was hired to be a manservant by a young naval officer called Robert Edwin Peary. Peary quickly came to recognize and appreciate the fact that Matthew was bright, hardworking, and could do a lot more than just clean clothes and wait at table. Indeed he trusted Matthew enough to ask Matthew to join him on numerous trips to the Arctic and to help him try to be the first man to get to the North Pole. Eventually, after many tries, the two men with four Inuit guides did indeed reach the North Pole.

Readers will find the story of Matthew Henson both inspiring and also distressing. It is hard to believe that a man as brave and as able as Matthew was not given the recognition that he deserved as being the "Co-Discoverer of the North Pole." He wasn't given this honor until years after his death when his contribution to Peary's efforts was finally acknowledged.