Halifax Wrecked

“Halifax Wrecked” was the newspaper headline screaming off the page on the morning of December 7, 1917. The day before, at 9:04 a.m., an enormous explosion in the Halifax Harbour wiped out a large section of the North End of the city, killing almost 2000 people and blinding many thousands more. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of that event, an event that has become part of who we Haligonians are.

Two ships trying to navigate the harbour ended up in the same shipping lane and one, The Imo, trying to maneuver, strafed the hull of the other, the SS Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was a floating bomb, loaded with explosives for the war effort but not flying a warning flag because that would only invite a German attack. The ship caught fire and exploded. There’s a pretty good interactive recreation on this site if you want to know a bit more about the details.

The day after the explosion there was a winter storm. The army set up tents to help house the newly homeless. Schools and churches were converted into hospitals and morgues. The City of Boston loaded up a train and sent aid with supplies and medical personal almost as soon as they heard the news. Halifax sends Boston their city’s Christmas tree in thanks and has done since the 1970s.

The event is part of our history and there have been a number of books written about it, as well as novels that use the event as a backdrop.

Pretty much the most definitive of the non-fiction books are:

Janet F. Kitz – Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery – contains many first person accounts of the survivors. (1989)
Laura Macdonald – Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917
Michael J. Bird – The Town the Died (1962)

There are also three new books just released:

Katie Ingram – Breaking Disaster: Newspaper stores of the Halifax Explosion from newspaper coverage point of view which sounds pretty interesting. (Read an article about Katie and the book in the Chronicle Herald here)

Ken Cuthbertson – The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster
John U. Bacon – The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
(Read a review of these books here at the Globe and Mail)

For the novels, I’ve read a few  and can recommend these:

Robert MacNeil – Burden of Desire from 1992. This Goodreads member review is quite good.
Genevieve Graham – Tides of Honour from 2015. I read this last year. Here’s my review.
Hugh MacLennan – Barometer Rising written in 1941 which I read recently. Review here.

An aside: Awhile back I wrote here about Project Bookmark, a project to focus on books written about various areas of Canada, a way you could “Read across Canada”. The 19th bookmark is going to be placed at the Halifax Citadel this afternoon and will honour Mr. MacLennan’s Barometer Rising.

Goodreads has a list of novels with the Explosion as a backdrop here.

A cannon from the SS Mont Blanc, found thrown several miles away from the harbour by the explosion near Albro Lake in Dartmouth

You can probably guess this has been a topic that has always fascinated me. None of my family were living here when it happened though my father grew up in the area that was rebuilt, on a dead end street leading to Fort Needham where the memorial now stands, overlooking the blast site below. I live around the corner from where one of the guns from the Mont Blanc was thrown, about 3 miles from the harbour. It’s mounted and there are a couple of information signs installed. They have a small ceremony there on the 6th every year though the main remembrance ceremony is at the larger memorial at Fort Needham.

To finish, a couple of interesting websites. The Nova Scotia Archives maintains the Book of Remembrance, a list of everyone that died, where they lived and how old they were. Another new site is 100 Years 100 Stories.

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Two sides of the coin

Every now and then you read a book and it really affects you. It might be profound and sad, it might be touching, or funny, or the story draws you in completely and the characters stay with you for days.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you A Train in Winter by Carolyn Moorehead and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The topic is the role of French women in the Resistance during WWII and both books have sections that describe the atrocities that happened to these women in the German concentration camps.

I read A Train in Winter (ATIW) last year in May that was a tough book to read but I learned something I didn’t know before and I gained a lot of new respect for the type of people that sacrifice their lives for what they believe in.

Then, imagine my surprise, I read The Nightingale (TN), a book that was a popular best seller, and is a romanticized account of much the same topic, in part, but from a fictional point of view. It was interesting to compare them. ATIW was bleaker and a lot more raw when describing the day to day danger of covert operations or dealing with occupiers who could be brutally abrupt and punishing at the drop of a hat or when describing the horrific things that went on in concentration camps. The novel, of course, had a romantic thread through the story but did throw some light into the concentration camps as well, and it didn’t sugar coat it but also didn’t go into as extensive an account as ATIW because that’s not what the primary focus of the novel was. The two books did complement each other, with “Here’s a story” on one side and “Here’s what really happened” on the other. I’d recommend both books but the atrocities in ATIW are not for the faint of heart.

With that in mind, I will post my reviews here:

atiwA Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
by Carolyn Moorehead
I learned about an aspect of WWII from this book that I didn’t know before, the role of women in the French Resistance and what happened to the ones that were sent to concentration camps. I knew there were women in the Resistance but I didn’t know there was a specific camp that they sent the French women to. I didn’t know the kinds of things that the women did to help oppose the German occupation of France, mainly Paris in these accounts.

This is not an easy book to read. The things that happened to the women in the camps are indescribable, horrific, tragic, horrendous, nightmarish… there really are no words that do it justice. The author tells it like it was, gleaning from research, letters and diaries, and her interviews with the handful of women that were in the camps. The stories of how they managed to survive are just as brutal as the stories of the torture and deaths.

The book starts off slowly, introducing a great number of women who were involved with the grassroots resistance movement pretty much as soon as the Germans occupied most of France, Paris being the main focus. The women that were involved were all ages from young teenagers to senior citizens. They were messengers, printers, distributors of posters and pamphlets, providers of safe houses and hiding places as well is participants in sabotage sometimes. The police methodically gathered evidence and eventually zeroed in on them. They were captured and sent to concentration camps, work camps and the like.

From there, the book gets dark and heavy with the awful things that happened but the survival instinct and the spirit of many of the women is astonishing. The author describes how they got through it, supported each other, adjusted to life after the war, or not, how it affected not only the women but their families and the families of the women that did not come home. Many of the women were awarded the Legion of Honour for their services. Some helped convict many collaborators and Germans for war crimes. It’s a tough read but a very interesting aspect of history.

tnThe Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Viann and Isabelle are sisters with very different personalities. Their mother died when they were young and their father sent them away, unable to cope. Viann lives with her husband and daughter in a village in France while Isabelle is a handful, continually being ejected from one school after another. World War II arrives and everything changes. Isabelle spends the war working for the Resistance and Viann must keep her and her daughter alive while her husband is away. She must billet two German officers over the course of the war. One is a decent man, the other is not. There is danger, starvation, risk, fear, regrets and tragedy.

Isabelle’s story somewhat crosses over with a non-fiction book I read earlier in the year about French women that worked for the Resistance and went to a concentration camp which was an interesting aspect to the novel. Viann finds her courage, Isabelle is driven to do anything she can to work against the Germans. The sisters are continually estranged through most of the story. The author seems to have done some very good research not only into the types of things that the women in the resistance did and what kinds of things happened to them in the camps but also what it was like to deal with the occupation, food shortages and the daily fear. There is very good character development and the story kept me turning the pages.