First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson by author Simon Schwartz
First Man is largely about a black man named Matthew Henson. He was a part of history before black men were allowed to be.
He journeyed with a white party to the North Pole and was actually the first American to step foot there without receiving any credit until many years later. Simply because he was black and the leader of the expedition was just the worst.
It’s a deeply upsetting story that needs to be told in history classes all across the world. However, I’m not sure this graphic novel is the way to tell it.
The author states up front that he has taken a “based on a true story” strategy to the book. He states blatantly that he’s bent the truth in order to form a better narrative. I do appreciate that honesty but what that’s done is muddle the whole thing.
He weaves the narrative through Inuit mythology that lines up with the prophecy of this man coming to discover the North Pole. It’s an interesting framing device but further muddles the reality of the tale.
I was interested in the story the whole way through the book and it was succinct, entertaining, and at times disturbing. And then I got to the afterward that contained the actual time line and I found myself extremely frustrated.
The main thing that stood out to me was that in the story version Henson receives recognition for his accomplishments after his wife has passed and he goes to her grave to tell her, a touching moment for sure.
In reality she outlived him by 12 years.
Taking this kind of liberty to emotionally manipulate the reader feels like an abuse of power.
School children everywhere should absolutely learn the story of the brave hero who battled the elements and a society who didn’t trust him to reach the harshest peak of the Northern Hemisphere. But they should learn about it truthfully.
You can read about the actual true story through many publications but National Geographic has a succinct and informative article readily available.
Since prior generations were convinced that a false story was true, the way to rectify that is not to put forth another false story. History is rewritten enough as it is!
This is one of those books that I like less and less the more I think about it. Upon initial reading I was grateful to have learned about Henson of whom I otherwise was ignorant. But now I’m just kind of mad that the more I look into it the more falsities this book contained.
I would love to see a version of Henson’s story told by an African American, with respect and dignity. Not this one put out by just another white guy rewriting history to suit his needs.
2/5 snowflakes ❄❄
For a better true graphic novel check out They Called Us Enemy.
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Here are some different biographies of Matthew Henson that seem to be more likely to give an accurate story, please buy them instead: