Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole and actually reached it before the famous explorer, has largely been overlooked and forgotten by history. This book, as the subtitle says, not only attempts to revive Henson’s story it also combines many different threads of Henson’s life and legacy, historical events, and Inuit culture to create a nuanced portrait of Matthew Henson as a man and an explorer.
The introduction explains Schwartz’s motivations and reasoning behind how he presented Matthew Henson, most notably saying, “I am not a historian but a graphic novelist, which is why I made no attempt at nonfiction.” The story itself begins with Schwartz’s imagined legend of Tahnusuk (death) and the Raven, then opens out into Matthew Henson as a custodian in the museum. As he goes about his life and looks at the artifacts, some of which he himself collected, he goes back in his memories to his childhood as a cabin boy, to his experiences with the Peary expeditions, his first meeting with Peary in the jungle, his relationship with his wife Lucy, and his experiences with prejudice and with the native Inuit peoples he encountered. Henson’s memories blend together with the Inuit Spirit Masks as he drifts back and forth between his memories and his current life. The story ends with a poignant moment as Henson visits his wife’s grave and reflects on his brief recognition at the end of his life, followed by a story illustrating his legacy among the Inuit people. The back matter includes a map, chronology of Matthew Henson’s life and a reminder that the story is a literary interpretation, black and white photos, and a brief bibliography.
The art is more heavily emphasized than the text; many parts of the story, especially Henson’s later life, are mostly wordless. The arctic shades of blue, gray, brown and white dominate the story from city to jungle to the frozen tundra. Henson’s emotions are shown in his lack of emotion, his expressionless face grim as he suffers prejudice and struggles with his conscience and makes difficult choices. Peary’s increasing despair, anger and eventual breakdown and betrayal are shown in sharp contrast to Henson’s stubborn survival. The sections that impose art with Inuit styles over the actions and characters are interesting and add an additional dimension to the narrative.
I found this comic fascinating, but it left me feeling conflicted—which is, perhaps, part of the point of the book.This is a powerful story with riveting art but some of the choices in the narrative are troubling. Peary’s relationship with an Inuit woman is shown, but Henson’s only relationship is shown as with his wife Lucy, despite the fact that she was actually his second wife and his only child was born with an Inuit woman. The “Inuit legend” at the beginning of the story appears to be a literary fabrication and, from the (very little) I know of Inuit culture, not consistent with the way cultural stories are told and passed down—it’s far more linear. Because so much of the story is told through the suggestions and emotions of the art, I didn’t get a good feel for the emotions of the local populations or Henson’s relationship with them. He seemed to hold himself apart from all the other protagonists in the story and expose a sense of deep loneliness and disconnection. This, coupled with the ignoring of Henson’s Inuit wife and son and the appropriation of Inuit culture, made me feel as though the history and lives of the native people were overlooked in favor of making Henson a larger-than-life heroic figure, rather than a fallible human.
It’s difficult to define an audience for this book. The publisher recommends it for high school and it could certainly spark many discussions on the accuracy of historical legend, the representation of minorities and native people in historical events, different perspectives of said historical events and comparing and contrasting historical fiction and history. However, I find it difficult to picture the average teen taking this off the shelf to read on their own. The muted palette and heavy subject matter could be a difficult sell for librarians encouraging recreational reading. However, this would definitely be a title that could spark a lot of intense discussion in a classroom or book club with mature readers.
First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson
by Simon Schwartz
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: