Real-life explorer Matthew Henson gets superhero treatment

BOOK REVIEW
“Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem”
By Gary Phillips
Agora/Polis, $27.99
Grade: A
Mysteries can offer a bit of a history lesson as Gary Phillips shows in his exciting “Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem.”
Matthew Henson was a real person — a Black explorer who was part of the expedition with Robert Peary that claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. Henson maintained that he was the first of their party to reach the pole, but denied the publicity because of his race. That statement has been debated among experts, many of whom side with Henson.
In “Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem,” set in 1920, Phillips re-imagines Henson as an adventurer who never lost his taste for action or exploring new situations whether they be countries or Harlem neighborhoods. Apparently, this is pretty close to the real Henson — just Google him.
Phillips’ Henson can rappel down a Harlem brownstone, barrel into an apartment, dispatch the two thugs hired by gangster Dutch Schultz and rescue the kidnapped daughter of evangelist Daddy Paradise.
While this fictionalized Henson has superhero qualities, Phillips is careful to make him a regular person who just happens to have exceptional skills.
Phillips uses the background of the Harlem Renaissance with aplomb while sprinkling in real-life people such as the first Black aviatrix, Bessie Coleman, poet Langston Hughes, writer Zora Neale Hurston and many more.
While the entertainment value is high in “Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem,” Phillips shows the racism Henson encountered on a daily basis.
 

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