Gilman has written this biography with a young reader in mind and seemingly with the intent to reach an African-American audience. With his biography published as part of the Black American series published by Melrose Square, Matthew Henson is in company with such figures as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Turner, Paul Robeson, and Jackie Robinson.
The book is geared to a young audience with its liberal use of photographs, and the text is addressed to a younger reader as well. Although in no way talking down to the reader, Gilman provides clear definitions within the text of words that might require explanation. The term “frostbite,” for example, is thoroughly explained as “a condition that occurs when parts of the body such as the ears, nose, fingers, and toes are not protected adequately from the cold and thus become frozen. The only way to stop the effects of severe frostbite is amputation.” This kind of explanation is provided consistently throughout the book.
In addition, though much factual material is included in the book, Gilman employs a clear style that is straightforward and to the point. The story is presented in a fast-paced way that moves the young reader through the text. Chapter endings, in particular, entice the reader to continue.
Gilman uses excerpts from both Henson’s and Peary’s personal journals, as well as newspaper articles, not only to document details in the text but also to illustrate personal...
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Few books had been written about Henson prior to his death in 1955. Two of these books, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912) and Dark Companion (1947), were written by Henson himself, the latter cowritten with Bradley Robinson. In these and other reports, according to Gilman, significant contributions by this African-American explorer were downplayed or omitted in order to appease the racist sentiments of the time. In another book, Northward Over the “Great Ice” (1898), Peary presents his account of the expeditions to the North Pole. It is not known what role Peary assigned Henson in this book, however, as newspaper accounts of the time, according to Gilman, reduced the accomplishments of Henson to that of “a colored servant.” Although few encyclopedia references were available, one, as late as 1980, described Henson as simply a dogsled driver who accompanied Peary.
In the 1960’s, shortly after the long-awaited recognition of Henson, other books started to appear about him. These were, for the most part, adult accounts. With the push to produce literature by and about African Americans, however, there has been a resurgence of books about not only Henson but other famous African Americans as well. These biographies have been directed particularly at the young adult and children’s level.
Gilman has added to this collection a significant book about a dedicated and courageous individual. His account is not the only one; there are several biographies of Henson that are written for different reading levels. Henson played his part during the expeditions and after them in an unobtrusive, nonviolent manner. He worked extremely hard, never gave up, and valued knowledge and expertise. These qualities are worthy attributes to which young people can aspire.