The Town That Died by Michael J Bird

town that diedOn December 6, 1917 the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear bomb detonated in Halifax Harbour, destroying most of the town, killing more than 1900 people and injuring approximately 6000.

In one fiftieth of a second, the French ship vanished in a searing ball of flaming gases. With a thundering, staccato roar the blast waves from the exploding chemicals struck out at Halifax and Dartmouth with the violence of a hundred typhoons. The earth shook and the bed of the harbour split open…

When the sky emptied even then Hell was not yet finished with the stricken towns.

Bird’s book is a compelling mix of minute-by-minute events leading up to and immediately following the explosion, and first and second-hand accounts from survivors. He then wraps up the book with an account of the trial of the captains of the two colliding ships, the Imo  and the  Mont Blanc.

Bird follows a number of explosion survivors through the hours and days after the event, detailing the horrors they witnessed and the struggle to survive.

There is of course the well known and heroic tale of Vincent Coleman, telegraph operator. The immediate and generous response of the United States, with Boston and New York standing out as strong supporters.

And the lesser known tale of William King, presumed dead, his unconscious body taken to the morgue on Chebucto Road – where he awoke two days later. There is young Edith O’Connell, who lost her home and entire family, and 17 year old Lillian Atkins from Yarmouth, who miraculously survived the devastation at the Dominion Textile Company. These and so many more amazing and heartbreaking stories.

And then there are the other stories: the looting and profiteering. The crime. There are always those willing to take advantage of a city in peril.

Few thought Halifax harboured any would-be ghouls or vultures. The disaster showed how many. Men clambered over the bodies of the dead to get beer in the shattered breweries. Men taking advantage of the flight from the city because of the possibility of another explosion went into houses and shops and took whatever their thieving fingers could lay hold of.

With the 95th anniversary of the disaster this year, it seemed time for me to finally read this book in full, start to finish. I have owned it for years, but only ever treated it as a reference book, skimming through for facts or stories. As someone who knows the story well, I was unprepared for the power of Bird’s narrative.

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing; illustrated edition (Jan 1 1995)
ISBN-10: 1551091267
ISBN-13: 978-1551091266

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaétan Soucy

Two brothers live on a remote estate with their father, cut off completely from the outside world. All they know they have learned from him, their bizarre perceptions of outside life being derived entirely from the collection of ‘dictionaries’ in the library. They have no toys, they have no friends. When their father suddenly dies, they are forced to leave their home, to face the world they hardly knew existed. Their innocence is quickly stripped away.

“I couldn’t decide what sex she was just by looking at her, whether she was a blessed virgin or a slut or et cetera, because of my lack of experience and so forth, and because dictionaries can’t explain everything, because, you have to believe me, I know my limits.”

It is impossible to describe this novel in any detail without ruining the story, which makes reviewing it somewhat difficult. To say it has ‘twists’ is to severely understate the matter. What I can say is that in The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, Soucy has created a fascinatingly gothic fairy tale. It is dark. It is creepy. I was horrified, and yet I was touched by the characters and their tragedies.

“We had to take the universe in hand, my brother and I, for one morning just before dawn papa gave up the ghost without a by-your-leave. His mortal remains strained from an anguish of which only the bark remained, his decrees so suddenly turned to dust — everything was lying in state in the bedroom upstairs from which just the day before papa had controlled everything. We needed orders, my brother and I, so as not to crumble into little pieces, they were our mortar. Without papa we didn’t know how to do anything. On our own we could scarcely hesitate, exist, fear, suffer.”

While it is a short book, it is not an easy read. The narrator speaks in a dense, old-fashioned and just plain odd voice that will force you to slow down, consider and absorb each word. And even then, you will constantly discover that everything you thought you understood was wrong. So very wrong.

Have I confused you yet? There is no other way. I refuse to spoil the story. You will have to read it yourself. This is easily one of my favourite books off all time, but if you are new to this blog I will warn you – I love a dark story.

Paperback: 138 pages

Publisher: Anansi (Sep 1 2000)

ISBN-10: 0887846556

ISBN-13: 978-0887846557

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches was the first novel published in Quebec to be nominated for France’s Prix Renaudot.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

When I added Moby Dick to my 2011 reading list, I had no idea just how much work it would be to read. And it really did feel like work. While a fascinating book, it is not an easy read. The language is heavy. The imagery is layered. The detail and description lead to information overload.

But it is a beautiful novel. And that is despite the fact that the whole goal of the main characters is to hunt down and kill a whale, which is not exactly endearing.

Moby Dick is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, on his first whaling voyage. He sails aboard the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that there is something not altogether right about Ahab. He is scarcely seen by the crew, and not at all before they leave port. He is gruff and reclusive. He wears an ivory leg to replace the limb that was bitten off when he was attacked by the ferocious white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Ahab’s voyage is funded under the pretence of being a whaling voyage, but he soon reveals his real plan: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, and have his revenge.

But if this was really just a book about killing a whale, I would never have read it. It was so much more. In writing Moby Dick, Melville uses an odd mix of  metaphor, symbolism, stage directions, soliloquies and more to tell the story, while examining concepts of good and evil, class, social status, race and sexuality (among other references I probably missed). This was a book you had to read slowly to really see what he was trying to say, and you would have to read it numerous times to get all that you could out of it. I am not sure I have that in me.

Favourite chapters/moments include: Ishmael meeting and sharing a bed with Queequeg; Ahab making the sailors swear an oath to kill the whale; the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, following the oath; “The Whiteness of the Whale” – beautiful yet ominous; the personal stories of the carpenter and the blackmith; and of course the dramatic ending.

Moby Dick was an amazing read, and an intense and thrilling story. Well worth the investment of time if you are feeling ambitious.

The novel is full of famous and not so famous quotes, many of which honestly left me breathless. I would love to list them all here for you, but will leave you with one:

“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

Paperback: 656 pages

Publisher: Oxford University Press

First Published: 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London

ISBN-10: 9780199535729

ISBN-13: 978-0199535729