A Negro Explorer at the North Pole by Matthew A. Henson (1912)

I’ll be honest. I don’t know much about the North Pole. Ever since I was little my parents filled me with lies about Santa Claus. For a while I thought that the North Pole was a real place, an identifiable landmark. Reality is more complicated than my seven year old self could have understood or imagined. It turns out that there is no landmass known as the North Pole. The South Pole, or Antarctica, is a continent covered with ice and snow; the North Pole is just a floating mass of ice and snow which connects with the northernmost parts of Scandinavia, Greenland, Russia, Canada, and Alaska. The actual point known as the North Pole is up for debate. Is it related to magnetic north? Nope. When people refer to the North Pole they usually mean the geographic North Pole. A quick wikipedia search reveals that the geographic North Pole is the position opposite the South Pole. The North and South Poles are the axis’s that the Earth rotates upon. Since, the North Pole lies in the middle of the ocean between the northernmost points of multiple continents it can be hard to pin down where the North Pole lies at any one time. Either way it is clear that Matthew A. Henson and The Explorers Club, under the command of Robert Peary, sailed up past New England and traversed northward through Greenland to reach if not the true geographic North Pole close enough to gain the credit.

Matthew A. Henson has got a spot on my A-Team. Not only did he and Peary reach the North Pole first but he did this as a black man in America during the early 1900’s. This was a difficult time for black people in America caught in limbo between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Slavery had been abolished but lynchings were still common and segregation was in full force. Henson had to grow up quickly because many of his family members passed away when he was young. He joined a trade ship as a cabin boy at the age of 12. Through his travels he met Peary who took him on as an associate when Henson was in his early 20’s. Henson proved a reliable companion on the harsh northern expeditions. He learned to live like the Inuit people. After living with the Inuit people, he gained great respect for them, their customs, and their fortitude in the harsh conditions. This story is a memoir recording the final expedition in 1909 about A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.

 

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free ebook download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20923

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Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott (1863)

The atmosphere of the average hospital is foreign to me. Luckily I’ve not been forced into an extended hospital visit so far in my life. I hope that it is much different from the army hospital described in this book. One would hope that hospital care has improved since the American Civil War. The food and supplies are severely lacking in quality. Each ward is filled to the brim with wounded soldiers with little peace and quite amid the bustle of a full hospital. As an avid book reader and determined daydreamer, the confines of a noisy, busy hospital would feel claustrophobic. I don’t believe I’d enjoy either working with Miss Alcott in 1862 nor working in modern hospitals. The sight of blood makes slightly queasy; the groans of the afflicted fill me with equal discomfort. Mere talk of surgery gives my a light stomachache. For the rest of the day, I’d imagine surgeons sawing through my bones without anesthetic.

Louisa May Alcott is having a conversation with her family trying to decide where the head next in life. Shooting down ideas of writing or teaching, she turns favorably upon the idea of helping the war effort by volunteering as a war nurse. Down she travels from Massachusetts to Washington DC describing her bumbling travels with much levity. At the hospital, she explains the conditions and circumstances of daily hospital life. At first, she bumbles through the normal tasks but in a few days she becomes accustomed to the regular nurse routine. The hours are long, the food is poor, bandages are not always available and people die regularly without anesthetic. The death of one particular man of impressive character and stoic demeanor almost brought me to tears. Drifting from happy to sad moments with a impressive authenticity Louisa illuminates the world of an active war hospital. Be ready for laughing and crying while reading Hospital Sketches.

 

free audiobook download: https://librivox.org/hospital-sketches-by-louisa-may-alcott/

Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park by James W. Schultz (1916)

It is easy to be skeptical of old books that attempt to represent a minority culture. No worries here. The author gets out of the way and records the stories as spoken by the Blackfeet people. My favorite character in these stories is known as Old Man, or the dawn. He is a former god who has fallen from grace and is usually portrayed as a bumbling old fool. Many of the funniest stories, which made me literally laugh out loud, feature him as the protagonist. The other running theme throughout the whole book is of white people renaming mountains, lakes and waterfalls that the Blackfeet named generations ago. At one point, the author tells the tribe that the white people renamed those two mountains pointing away from camp to indicate two great heights. Everyone grumbles and one man gets indignant. Those mountains are named after our great chiefs. Are they now named after distinguished presidents or decorated generals? The author is forced to admit that he does not know of the white men in whose honor those mountains have been renamed in the most unintentionally funny moment of the book.

As the title suggests this is a collection of Blackfeet tales featuring happy, sad and funny stories. In each story you get a glimpse of the customs and ambitions of the Blackfeet people. From stories of adventure detailing raids of enemy camps to stories of heartbreaking betrayal each story is gripping and makes you want to read more. Smell the smoke of the campfire and read Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park.

 

free ebook download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/43399

free audiobook download: https://librivox.org/blackfeet-tales-of-glacier-national-park-by-james-w-schultz/

China and the Chinese by Herbert Allen Giles (1902)

When I initially saw the title of this book, I almost passed it by. Every book from a hundred years ago in which a European scholar explains some foreign culture is likely to be offensive. It is easy to see a group of people acting differently from yourself and assume that they are inferior. This is an ignorant habit but a common one especially when this was written. Inside this book, which is really a collection of speeches, the author does an amazing job of bucking that trend. He spends a large portion of the book defending the Chinese people and batting down the irresponsible slander spread about them. I specifically enjoyed the section on the Chinese language.

In this book you will find a collection of six lectures on China given by Herbert Allen Giles at Columbia University, New York in 1902. Herbert Allen Giles touches on the language, government, religion, and literature of the Chinese. The book is compact and dense with factual information. It may be dry for the uninterested but will be enjoyable to the inquiring mind. If you already have an interest in history and Chinese culture, I suggest you check out China and the Chinese.

 

free audiobook download: https://librivox.org/china-and-the-chinese-by-herbert-allen-giles/

free ebook download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18021

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriett A. Jacobs (1861)

Originally written under a pseudonym, Linda Brent, and coincidentally published immediately before the American Civil War this book occupies an awkward point in history. The struggles that Harriett endured from birth to the age of twenty seven would soon be outlawed. Chattel slavery would cease within five years of this books publication but looking farther ahead we realize that the institutions of slavery would not be entirely demolished after this war. One wonders how upsetting it was for Harriett to see the initial hope and joy at the North’s victory give way to a general attitude of ambivalence towards the rights of black people throughout the United States. To think it would take close to another hundred years for major federal legislation to pass congress that protected the rights of black people as equal citizens. This book does not completely depress me. Instead, I take solace in those people who were willing to risk a helping hand for Harriett in her time of need.

Harriett Jacobs is born a slave and writes of the unique challenges that black women in slavery face. She describes the physical and mental abuse that slave women endure while at work in the house. Leaning heavily upon her family and friends she braves each new horror as if pushed along by an unseen hand. Read her words in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.

 

free ebook download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11030

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Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup(1853)

I expected this book to be heart wrenchingly depressing and it was at points. But at other times Solomon Northup’s life reads like some 1850’s MacGuyver series. He spends his limited personal time attempting to outwit his dire circumstances. Multiple times his personal ingenuity saves the day. When his daily food allowance is eaten by worms, he rigs together an impromptu fish trap so he can eat fish when he arrives home after hours of cotton picking in the fields. When his master puts him in charge of whipping the other slaves, he gains a special accuracy with the whip so that he can fake it without actually hurting his friends. When his master attempts to take his life, Solomon engages in hand to axe combat and comes away unscathed. Each improbable escape builds up Solomon as some sort of slave era superhero. I’m left with the feeling that I want to be like Solomon Northup.

Solomon Northup has lives his whole life as a free man in the state of New York. Through a series of increasingly horrible circumstances he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana under another name. He spends the next twelve years trying to get notice to his family back in New York that he has been enslaved so they will rescue him from this cruelty and injustice. The laws are stacked against him. Slaves are not allowed free movement or allowed to send letters without a note from their master. Pick up this book and read about Solomon’s escape from slave country in Twelve Years a Slave.

 

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free ebook download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45631

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)

This book was as refreshing as a trip to the beach after months cramped in a tiny office tapping repetitively on the keyboard. In Helen Keller I find the kindred spirit of an avid reader. She saw the world through raised type on the printed page and found books intoxicating. Through books you can go almost anywhere. Another point of interest is her negative experience with copyright and the fallacy of human memory. I have always believed, as she does, that every thought in my mind could be a regurgitation of someone else’s beliefs or opinions that I absorbed at some earlier date. The inability to fully trust ones own memories can be disconcerting. Someday in the distant future human beings might be capable of relinquishing ownership of ideas and instead focus on applying those ideas. Just a thought.

Helen Keller narrates her life as she grows from a child to a young woman. This fascinating journey bridges the difficulties of living without sight and hearing. Losing these two senses before the age of two she forgets all about how the world looked and sounded. For the next four years she communicates with her family using rudimentary signs and continues her happy childhood. At the age of seven, Helen meets her teacher for the first time. Anne Sullivan goes on to teach Helen how to read, write and communicate with others. This flash of insight ignites the great intellect of Helen Keller. See the world through her eyes by reading The Story of My Life.

 

free ebook download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2397

free audiobook download: https://librivox.org/the-story-of-my-life-by-helen-keller-2/