'Race to the Frozen North', by Catherine Johnson; a mini review, giveaway and author interview!

The fabulous author and real life heroine Catherine Johnson has written a brilliant book with Barrington Stoke: 'Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson story'. It will be published on the 15th of September, but here’s a little preview just for you readers… 

Publishing ahead of Black History Month in October, this amazing fictionalised story of a real life BAME hero is not to be missed.

Matthew Henson was the first man to reach the North Pole in the early twentieth century, but his story was suppressed for decades because of the colour of his skin.

Matthew Henson was simply an ordinary young man. That was, until Commander Robert E. Peary entered his life and offered him a chance at true adventure. Henson would become navigator, craftsman, translator, and right-hand man on multiple treacherous journeys to the North Pole. Defying the odds and the many prejudices that faced him to become a true pioneer, this is his incredible and often untold story. 

I was able to chat with the lovely Catherine (IRL!!) recently about her latest novel, and here’s what I found out… 

What is the story of this book? How did it come to be?

I wrote a non-fiction book for Barrington Stoke maybe… 10 years ago!? It was about Matthew Henson. [This book] has done very well over the years, and they wanted to do something different this time. So I wrote a dramatic, fictionalised retelling of his life! So, although it’s true, it’s written as a story. It was quite hard, because he’s a real person – I don’t know exactly what he says, I don’t know precisely what he did! I’ve joined the dots between things that I knew had happened.

I don’t think you’d ever find anyone like Barrington Stoke. Every writer will say the same thing, every writer wants to work for them! Because they know what they’re doing, they believe in their books… and they’re great!

So, what do we need to know about Matthew Henson before we read this novella?

He had an amazing story. It’s like a fairy tale. Over 100 years ago, he achieved the greatest things, including going to the North Pole… and it all went unrecognised. There was an issue with the North Pole expedition; people didn’t believe they could do it, mostly because they couldn’t believe that Peary, the white man in charge, would ever have gone [on the expedition] with a black man. The one he trusted most on that trip was a black guy? Oh no, surely not!

So they gave Peary a medal but not Henson. Henson then came home and worked driving cars, sending messages… he worked in his late fifties as a messenger boy! He did do some lecture tours in the black colleges, but he wasn’t recognised and never received a medal or was admitted to the prestigious clubs. When he died, he just had a regular funeral. It wasn’t until the 1980s when he was celebrated and recognised by mainstream America – so these days there are probably a lot of Matthew Henson schools and colleges. He came from nothing, he was illiterate and he was brought up by his stepmother, who would beat him. Eventually he ran away at just 11 years old, and met a sea captain who taught him how to read and write and took him around the world, and Matthew picked up all kinds of languages – he saw everything, and that was the making of him. And of course after that, he was spoiled for regular work.

It’s an amazing story, because it doesn’t seem real. 

Did you find this book fun to write?

I am a big, big chicken and would never do any brave things like cross icy crevasses or pull sledges over snow… I’d rather be at home with a little heater and an extra pair of socks, writing. I’m quite happy pretending; that’s what’s fun about being a writer, you won’t get frostbite or have your toes fall off, you don’t have to cut open a seal and eat it while it’s warm – you don’t have to do any of the practical stuff. 

What do you love most about writing, in general?

I like writing because you don’t have to actually go to work – you don’t have to put a uniform on or leave your house. These are advantages and disadvantages; you have to be able to motivate yourself. I’m really lucky, and I know I am. I wish I could be more productive; I know some authors who are like machines!

[Writing] is like falling in love, you can’t help but think about your pretend world and your pretend people and all the ideas you get. You go about your daily life, all the while thinking about your world and your people – like you do when you’re in love. You almost don’t want it to end – you want to stay there.

In fiction, especially young fiction, yes your protagonist might have it hard, but there will always be some kind of hope. In most cases, there will be some kind of comeuppance for the bad guys – and sometimes it’s the protagonist engineering it. It’s not like that in real life! In real life we’re hostages to fortune. But in fiction, you choose what happens. You can face adversity and come out stronger. It enables massive positive life change – which in real life, it doesn’t always. Sometimes, in real life, it’s just sh*t! So that’s why I like fiction… because it’s better than life. 


Thank you so much for chatting with me (over a lovely lunch at Bullet Coffee House), gorgeous Catherine.

Wanna keep up with my reading before I post about it on the blog?

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