Author Q&A: Catherine Johnson talks about Race To The Frozen North
Catherine Johnson is a star.
She’s written a large number of books, including Sawbones and The Curious Lady Caraboo. Her stories are mainly historical and often feature lesser-known characters from history, particularly those from black history.
Her fiction opened my eyes to the fact that history, and the canon of literature we are all familiar with, has been one-sided. Catherine’s work also made me aware of the all the stories yet to be listened to, yet to be told.
About Race To The Frozen North:
When Matthew Henson runs away from his violet stepmother, he begins a new life which nobody could have predicted. Inspired by the stories of an explorer named Baltimore Jack, Matthew sets out to see the world.
As a black boy in early 1900s America, the odds were against him.
Matthew works three times harder than anyone else to be judged on merit instead of being dismissed. His tenacity and hard work pay off, and he is hired and rehired in various positions on ships which sail the world. Often those positions are menial to his experience, but he perseveres and sees more of the world as a young man than most people see in their lifetime.
Finally, the opportunity comes for him to play a key role in an expedition and he sets out to become the first man to reach the North Pole.
Matthew and his friends Ootah and Segloo look at the success of the expedition in a different light – although Matthew plants the American flag in the right spot he understands how absurd it seems to his friends that another country would be so hung up about one spot of ice. This would make a lovely opening to conversation about colonial attitudes and inherited beliefs (ie we may not think we are prejudiced, but we may have inherited a set of beliefs from our culture including the idea that ‘conquering’ geography is cause for celebration.
I am delighted to welcome Catherine to my blog for a Q&A. Her answers are insightful and interesting. Thank you Catherine for your time.
Q&A: Catherine Johnson
1.) What drew you to Matthew Henson’s story?
I LOVE black history. For centuries people like me have been airbrushed out of the past and I believe it’s vital that everyone realises that enslavement is not the only story to be told about us. Also I am a sucker for terrible stories of people pushing themselves to their limits. I cannot imagine doing what Henson or Peary or Scott or Amundsen did. Also Henson was unique in that he learnt from the indigenous people of the far north. It was a completely different attitude to the prevailing one of the time, which said that western culture knew best about everything.
2.) What sort of research did you do and how did this shape your story?
Real solid research for this book mostly meant reading a lot of books! So even though I had read many of them when I wrote a non-fiction book about his exploits I had to look again. And read again, and check again. It was harder with this book because it’s more of a personal account. And even though there is an autobiography – written by Henson and a co-writer – there are still loads of gaps. And although there is a lot of detail about the polar expeditions, I thought readers could always get that elsewhere. What I imagine a lot of young readers will be really interested in is how and why an eleven-year-old boy runs away from home, and how he sets off – like a kid in a story – to see the world and perhaps seek his fortune.
3.) If you could voyage to one place in time and history, where would it be and why?
Ooh this is hard. I love a hot bath and antibiotics and modern medicine – can you imagine getting frostbite so badly your toes come off in your boot when you take them off? That’s what happened to Robert Peary who was the leader of Henson’s expeditions?
And while I love clothes – especially late 18th century/early 19th century women’s dresses – if you weren’t wealthy or healthy the past was not an easy place!
So if I was very rich and very healthy – and not about to have a baby – maybe I would have liked to live in 1780s London and meet the Blackbirds of St Giles…
4.) You write historical fiction. What draws you to historical narratives?
Historical fiction is life or death, and the stakes for young people (all people actually) were often much higher than they are today. This means there’s so much scope for adventure and excitement. Also it’s important to show readers that our past as Britons was full of very different sorts of people. Even in Roman times Britain was an island where many cultures smashed together, and that black people were always a part of British society from at least (if not before) Roman times. It’s about saying we all belong here.
5.) Matt decides to travel after listening to tales of adventure from a man named Baltimore Jack. Who were your role models as a child and how did they inspire you?
Writing role models? I suppose I was massively impressed by my Uncle who wrote books (I couldn’t read them and they were heavy theological books all in Welsh) but I remember the thrill of seeing his name on a book in a shop window when I was on holiday with my family in North Wales. Also I babysat for a woman who lived next-door-but-one when I was in my early teens. She had a desk in her kitchen with her typewriter set up and above it a shelf of the books she had written. She was a single parent and supported her family writing not just books but radio plays and TV – she was one of the first on the Grange Hill team. I was incredibly impressed by her, her name is Margaret Simpson.
6.) Matthew Henson is a forgotten character from history. Which other characters need a higher profile?
My favourite would have to be John Ystumllyn, who became a head gardener at a big house in North Wales at the end of the 18th century. He was enslaved and brought to Wales as a boy, during the fashion for exotic slave attendants for wealthy young women. Unlike some of these children he wasn’t sent to be worked to death on Caribbean plantations as soon as he grew up, but gained his freedom, married a local girl and had several children.