Disaster realism

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 Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917
The devil is in the details of Laura M. MacDonald's Taylor-prize-nominated Curse of the Narrows

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to read Curse of the Narrows, Dartmouth-native Laura M. MacDonald's meticulous reconstruction of the infamous Halifax explosion and its aftermath, without musing on the handling of far more recent disasters.

Here's what the head of the American Red Cross, John Moors, thought as he arrived in Halifax from Boston on December 8th, 1917, two days after the massive explosion caused by two ships that collided in the Halifax harbour, the cargo hold of one loaded up with TNT and other explosives.

He did not say so, but he ... wanted to get the relief effort out of the political world and into the hands of citizens. The American Red Cross experience was that, in the initial period, community leaders usually bonded just long enough to address emergency relief, but without the introduction of a long-range plan, the effectiveness of relief efforts would quickly disintegrate as local interests re-asserted themselves. A quorum of dedicated citizens was more effective, resourceful and fairer than politicians, who, at least in Moors's opinion, were more often than not useless.

Almost 90 years later, it's a sentiment many would regretfully agree still has merit. As MacDonald's fascinating account amply documents, the literally shell-shocked citizens of Halifax and Dartmouth, with the aid of relief teams who quickly made their way to the ravaged area from all over eastern Canada (including Toronto and Montreal) and the eastern United States, managed their disaster better than a considerably greater number of babbling bureaucrats did in the southern U.S. in 2005. It's a sobering contrast. (Then again, plus ça change: the black citizens of Africville, who lost homes, possessions and income along with other Haligonians, were routinely denied relief monies that went to their white fellow citizens without question.)

Leaving those ugly modern-day echoes behind, it's possible to become thoroughly immersed in MacDonald's gripping narrative (the book was a nominee for this year's Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction), constructed as it is with the intricately threaded detail of a fine tapestry. The masterful technique makes it equally possible to appreciate the up-close and personal stories of individuals and the sweeping panoramic view of a whole city blown apart and struggling to rebuild, heal and restore civil order.

Starting with the Mi'qmaq legend of an angry brave who placed a curse on anyone who tried to bridge the narrows, and which some thought might have something to it since two bridges built in the 19th century had collapsed âe" the author speculates that perhaps the reason later bridges have not collapsed (so far) is because the enormous tragedy of the explosion served to nullify that curse.

She goes on to a brief history-of-Halifax chapter, ending on a portrait of a bustling port city, population around 50,000 in wartime 1917, before plunging straight into the circumstances and events leading up to the fateful moment of the colossal explosion. The laying out of many scenes of ordinary people going about their ordinary activities on an ordinary day effectively builds suspense until the ships inexorably collide and the explosivesâe(TM) combustible powder âeoeburst into ant-sized fires.âe Descriptions unfold with an almost slow-motion quality that manages to convey the stunning and monumental scale of the eventual explosion:

[T]he air blast blew through the narrow streets, toppling buildings and crashing through windows, doors, walls and chimneys until it slowed to 765 miles an hour, 5 miles below the speed of sound. The blast crushed internal organs, exploding lungs and eardrums of those standing closest to the ship, most of whom died instantly. It picked up others, only to thrash them against trees, walls and lampposts with enough force to kill them.

In the end, there were 9000 people left homeless, 6000 injured and 2000 dead.

Those who randomly survived were left to wander the desolate streets, looking for loved ones and anyone else who was well enough to help. In one unforgettable moment a passerby noticed a group of nuns holding their skirts out together in a circle at the side of the street âe" they were protecting the privacy of a woman giving birth.

It's in details like these, and countless others, that MacDonald effectively conveys the human face of the disaster. She follows members of the large and well-known Duggan family (Billy was a champion rower; Charlie a ferry driver), some of whom survived and many of whom didn't, and she peers in on nurses, volunteers and doctors such as George Cox, who performed eye surgeries for nearly 86 hours straight; buckets filled with the destroyed eyes of hundreds of people, while many others needed their severe lacerations delicately stitched.

Itâe(TM)s an understatement to say that Halifax was forever marked by the tragedy. For as long as they lived, some survivors reported pulling tiny pieces of glass and wood from their heads and bodies. Of course, the emotional scars of loss remained the most painful and resonant.

Some good could be said to have come from the tragedy: Dr. W.E. Ladd's work on children in Halifax led to the pioneering of pediatric surgery; an enduring bond remains between the citizens of Halifax and those of Boston, the latter of whom did not hesitate to come to the aid of the blasted out city.

MacDonald mentions that growing up in Dartmouth she had a sense of the explosion's impact from childhood on and that it was her father-in-law, a prominent surgeon, who put her on to the significant medical aspects of the story, but she mainly keeps herself out of the narrative. It's somewhat refreshing to read this style of reportage in an era of non-stop memoir.

Curse of the Narrows is a straightforward, one might even say old-fashioned, historical account, whose strength lies in the painstaking job the author has done of gathering material from archival documents and in-depth interviews with survivors and other experts, and piecing it together with great care. This is bound to be a book that stands the test of time as an invaluable resource for students of history, and perhaps even disaster-relief managers.âe"Moira Farr

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