Book Review: Onward

Ages 9-12

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Matthew Henson should be a household name by now. That he is not is indeed not the fault of the good folks at National Geographic and other organizations dedicated to righting previous wrongs in history. For those who still don't know, Henson was the African-American man who accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole; in fact, some historians think that Henson stepped on the Pole coordinated before Peary did. Technically, Henson is often described as Peary's servant or some sort of workman. This relationship might have existed in the world outside the Polar expeditions that the two undertook; but on those expeditions, they were equal in their desire and determination and certainly ability to reach the Pole.

This book does an excellent job of showcasing Henson's life, not only as Peary's servant/expedition companion but also as an adventurer in his own right. He was also a very good friend to the various Inuit people who looked after the members of the Polar expeditions and even accompanied Peary and Henson on some of those trips.

The photos are snapshots frozen (sometimes literally) in time, the frigidness of the landscape burning through the pages and into the mind'e eye of the reader. The photos, along with the sometimes blow-by-blow accounts of the expeditions that led up to and included the successful summiting of the Pole, bring home with startling clarity just how difficult and life-challenging these Polar expeditions really were. Explorers died routinely in their pursuit of the North Pole. It is perhaps marvelous indeed that both Peary and Henson lived to tell about their success, given the sheer number of hours in horribly freezing weather that they endured on their series of expeditions.

The book also brings home just how difficult it was for Peary and Henson to pay for their expeditions. They had to pay for supplies and other people and dogs to haul the goods and ships to transport all of this to the northern wastelands that served as the shoving-off point for each expedition; and the more they came back empty-handed, the fewer people were willing to invest in Peary's and Henson's attempts to make history.

The more the reader absorbs of Henson's life, the more Henson the proud, dedicated adventurer shines through.

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