Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Sad Day

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Perhaps many of us will always remember where we were yesterday when we heard that Nelson Mandela had “gone home.” As President Obama said, “We have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”

Sadly, today is the anniversary of two tragedies in Canadian history. In 1989, the Montreal Massacre horrified Canadians. And almost 100 years ago today, the world’s greatest man-made explosion to that time took place in Halifax harbour.

It all started at 8:45 a.m. on this date in 1917 when the two ships the Imo and the Mont Blanc collided. Unfortunately, the Mont Blanc had TNT in its holds and liquid benzol on its deck. Sparks from the collision set the fluid on fire, which then seeped down into the holds. About 21 minutes after the impact, the Mont Blanc blew sky high.

The blast was followed by a tidal wave and fierce fire. Buildings were levelled and thousands of people were killed or injured. Flying glasses blinded many. “The heart-shaking underground rumble was followed a few seconds later by the terrifying crash of breaking glass and splintering wood all over the city,” reported one eyewitness, “as windows were shattered and doors forced by the terrific air blast.” It’s hard to believe, but the explosion was so strong that a big chunk from the Mont Blanc’s cannon was thrown almost 4 miles (6 kilometres) from the ship.

Of course tragedies often inspire writers. When the classic Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan was written in 1941, it was one of the first books to use Halifax as its sole background. The Halifax Explosion has also found its way into children’s books. Both No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn by Julie Lawson and Halifax Explodes by Frieda Wishinsky describe the tragedy for young readers.

In a book I’m working on right now with Frieda, we have talked about including information on some Canadian tragedies. To help readers process the information and to put it in some context, our editor urged us to focus on the rebuilding that can happen after a disaster.

We weren’t being encouraged to sugar-coat a terrible situation but to find a way to give kids a sense of hope that they can apply to their own circumstances. I think when writing for kids it’s really important to present many points of view (positive and negative), rather than forcing one viewpoint on them, so they can make up their own minds with as much information as possible.

So for something positive surrounding the tragedy of the Halifax Explosion: Boston, Massachusetts, sent a lot of aid to Halifax and the city continued to help throughout the rebuilding. The next year, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to Boston in thanks. The tradition was revived in 1971 and still continues. This year’s tree arrived in Boston on November 15 after a 12-hour commute and a tree lighting ceremony took place last night.

And Another Thing …
It’s hard to believe things could get worse for Halifax, but the day after the deadly explosion, a fierce blizzard blanketed the city. It was the worst blizzard in a decade and shut down relief efforts across the city.

About 16 inches (41 centimetres) of heavy snow fell on the ravaged city. Trains bringing help from other parts of Canada and from the United States became stuck in snowdrifts. Telegraph lines that had been quickly restrung after the explosion were knocked down yet again. Perhaps worst of all, some people who had managed to survive the explosion died of exposure in the storm.

Many thanks for the comments on yesterday’s post. The photo showed Thomas Dundas riding Bunny and was from a 1918 issue of The Toronto Telegram.

Thanks for reading and have a good weekend.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Elizabeth MacLeod

Award-winning author Elizabeth MacLeod has written over 50 books for children. Her most recent book, Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries, was published by Annick Press.

Go to Elizabeth MacLeod’s Author Page