Across the great divide

Michael Winter and Steven Laffoley switch book genres to capture life during the Great War
Oland Brewery-Halifax Explosion
The wreckage of the Oland Breweries Dartmouth plant after the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917. Seven Oland employees, including brewmaster Conrad G. Oland, died on that day. Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Public Archives

Two authors of new historical books switch genres to capture life during the Great War

Some may think there’s an impassable chasm between fiction and non-fiction. That history is what really happened and novels are made up. Maybe I once thought that myself. The truth is, that like everything else in life, writing about the past is a spectrum. Genres are distinctions we invent and sometimes the separating lines blur or disappear.

Two highly readable recent books demonstrate how authors can effectively slip across the so-called fiction-non-fiction divide. Each is inspired by events and experiences during the First World War.

Steven Laffoley’s The Blue Tattoo (Pottersfield Press) is the first time this award-winning historian has turned to fiction. His focus is the Halifax Explosion. 

I asked him why he was drawn to the topic and with a novel of all things. He replied: “I think stories where characters face calamity, truly terrible events … provide readers a chance to explore their fear through narrative … Fiction allows for a deeper and more meaningful exploration of emotion.”

With a number of books and films already out there on the Halifax Explosion, Laffoley seeks to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. The arc of the novel rests on a love story between a woman and a man from widely separated social and economic classes. Their differing backgrounds allow the author to examine a wide range of topics, including the suffragette movement and how wars benefit or hurt people in different ways. 

Surprisingly, at least to me, there are stretches in The Blue Tattoo where the couple’s story is not front and centre. Instead, Laffoley offers other characters –some historical, some invented– whose stories convey the wider tale of how the devastation happened and how it killed, maimed, blinded and rendered homeless so many thousands. 

At times, some incidents read more like straight history than immersive fiction, but they communicate the context of the sweeping story the
book presents. 

The Blue Tattoo ticks along at a brisk pace and keeps the reader’s interest all the way. It’s a big story that everyone should read. It deepens one’s appreciation for the parts of the city touched by the devastation of Dec. 6, 1917. 

Looking for more books about the Halifax Explosion?

Travelling the opposite way from Steven Laffoley, from fiction to history, is Michael Winter with Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead (Doubleday Canada).

St. John's National War Memorial
St. John’s National War Memorial is one of the most elaborate of the province’s post World War I monuments. Photo credit: Sasha Okshevsky

Winter is a highly regarded novelist who has written a history with a distinct difference. It’s a travelogue and memoir rolled into one, with many reflections by the author on the effect of the passing of time. 

As Winter states about halfway through the book, he was not interested in re-writing the history of Newfoundland’s role in the Great War. Instead, his main questions were: “How war and the past creep into everyday life? How does the past ambush us?”

The book recounts a journey Winter took to retrace the steps of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment when it went overseas in 1914. He follows them, and his own travels a century later, through England and Scotland for training, on to Gallipoli and Egypt, then to northern France (where Beaumont-Hamel was the great tragedy), and eventually back home to Newfoundland and Labrador.

For Winter, every stop conjures what the Newfoundland soldiers were doing (and sometimes feeling and thinking) and what background they came out of. It’s an effective approach. Readers get to know the soldiers and their families back home. We appreciate what they went through and at the same time we absorb Winter’s reflections about it all today.

Sometimes it’s funny; more often it’s poignant or full-on sad. It’s an intriguing narrative that  encourages the reader to at least ponder everything the author brings up.

These two books could not be much more different. Yet they are united by more than just the era they depict. Each author’s writing is deeply imbued with a spirit of humanity in the stories he presents.

Written By

A J B Johnston is a historian and novelist with sixteen books in print. France made him a chevalier of its Ordre des palmes académiques for his body of work on Louisbourg. For more on him, go to ajbjohnston.com; instagram.com/ajbjohnston; or Facebook at A J B Johnston, Writer.

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