Fiction Brings Halifax Explosion to Heart

New novels allow us to investigate the unknowable questions behind unacceptable realities of human stupidity and tragedies that befall innocents
Detail from original cover of Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising (1947)

Even after a century, with most of its survivors deceased, the 1917 Halifax Explosion continues to grip writers’ imaginations. Books on the disaster proliferate, and while non-fiction resurrects and re-examines its facts from various angles, it can’t go where fiction does, re-envisioning the event and exploring its impact on the human heart and mind.

“Fiction is the poor man’s non-fiction,” someone recently said to me (someone who should’ve known better)—a joke that did not sit well. Fiction is a passport to empathy. Fiction allows us to investigate the unknowable, the questions behind unacceptable realities that nag long after the facts get put to bed. Realities like human error and stupidity and the fact that tragedies befall innocents. Fiction lets us explore the mysteries behind suffering.

So it’s no surprise that since Hugh MacLennan’s great-grandad of Explosion novels, Barometer Rising, appeared in 1941, the disaster’s shock waves keep on inspiring novelists. At least eight novels for adults have followed MacLennan’s, including one by American bestselling author Anita Shreve, while still others—Ami MacKay’s The Birth House, for instance—feature the event in stories set in its era. Children’s authors have tackled it in shorter works, such as Joan Payzant’s Who’s a Scaredy Cat and Sharon Gibson Palermo’s I Am Hilda Burrows. All draw documented facts into their narratives while seeking not some impossible resolution, but a truthful “lesson” about people’s resilience and kindness—qualities that ensured Halifax’s survival.

It’s no accident that many—besides those for younger readers, including Julie Lawson’s new YA novel, A Blinding Light and Steven Laffoley’s A Halifax Christmas Carol—take MacLennan’s cue and frame the disaster narrative with a love story, tenderness fraught by Great War grief compounded by the Explosion’s. Dazzle Patterns, a compelling new novel by Nanaimo writer and visual artist Alison Watt, follows MacLennan’s romantic lead. So do Genevieve Graham’s Tides of Honour (2015) and Jon Tattrie’s Black Snow (2009). The mix of love and death makes for capital-D drama, no question.

Others offer their share of love (and lust)—Robert MacNeil’s Burden of Desire (1998), Laffoley’s The Blue Tattoo (2014) and my novel, Glass Voices (2007)—while focusing more on the disaster’s longer-term social and psychological repercussions. These books consider the Explosion’s shattering of colonial attitudes about class and the fledgling emancipation of women, and, in the case of Glass Voices, the struggle to rebuild lives stricken with survivor’s guilt.

This angle reflects the fact—recognized by Janet Kitz, who preserves survivors’ stories in her nonfiction work Shattered Citythat, for many, enduring their losses meant epressing memories of the event. Shifting social attitudes, especially about women’s roles as the First World War robbed the world of men, are front and centre in this Fall’s many Explosion-based offerings.

Laffoley’s Christmas Carol features an intrepid girl reporter, while Watt’s Dazzle Patterns and Lawson’s A Blinding Light are deeply informed by their female protagonists’—Clare Holmes’s and Livy Schneider’s, respectively—growing awareness of and resistance to oppressive norms about women that are rooted in class. In Lawson’s expertly woven story, the vividly drawn distance between Halifax’s snooty South End ladies and working-class North End women forms a pivotal point in the plot when the Mont Blanc explodes.

Lawson, based in Victoria, BC, is no stranger to her subject matter, having explored it previously in No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, part of a YA history series. Laffoley, who lives in Halifax, proves equally adept here (as he did in his earlier novel), at recreating the setting and milieu so familiar to all of us who know the city’s peninsula and its history. His story brings its hospitals, waterfront and old downtown Herald building to life as its events unfold during the weeks after the disaster.

The settings in Dazzle Patterns—which follows several perspectives including that of Clare’s fiancé, Leo, fighting in the trenches overseas, and of German émigré Fred Baker aka Friedrich Bacher—shift repeatedly from various Halifax locations to Clare’s parents’ farm in the Annapolis Valley and to locations on France’s Western Front, and eventually to an internment camp for German prisoners in Amherst, NS. It’s an ambitious narrative which, for me anyway, comes to life most vividly in its rendering of Leo’s war experiences and Clare’s studies at Halifax’s Victoria School of Art (NSCAD’s predecessor). Taking a refreshing new angle in tackling the Explosion’s after-effects, Watt dramatizes art making as her protagonist’s means of overcoming post-Explosion stress disorder.

The Great War, that mother of disasters and of Halifax’s, is as important as the characters in Laffoley’s and Watt’s books. Its wreckage makes the Explosion’s feel secondary, though in both the Explosion is the incendiary device that sets everything off. The most affecting parts of A Halifax Christmas Carol detail, through the perspective of hard-boiled journalist Michael Bell, the physical injuries sustained by men lucky enough to return from the Front as the 1918 influenza pandemic waits in the wings. Laffoley’s tale pitches the suffering that took place locally against suffering on a global scale, encapsulating its effects in the person of an elusive boy—a homeless orphan who, despite losing a leg in the Explosion, strives to help other injured, parentless children.

Watt’s main character in Dazzle Patterns, Clare, loses an eye in the disaster. Her injury impels her to take relief in laudanum and, fighting addiction, in the regenerative process of drawing and painting. All the while lamenting Leo, who goes missing in the trenches, she befriends Fred, a craftsman at the glassworks factory where she’s working as a flaw-checker when the Explosion hits. As Clare loses, or finds, herself in art—instructed by the school’s real-life principal, Arthur Lismer—Fred turns his hand to making glass eyes, a coveted commodity in 1918.

Dazzle Patterns relies on metaphor in ways the other books avoid, its title riffing on Lismer’s paintings of camouflaged warships. Of all the writers, Watt takes the greatest liberties with the facts as we identify them. The Nova Scotia Glass Company existed, for instance, but was located in New Glasgow; imagine the injuries if it had been on Halifax’s waterfront. But, one hundred years later, who’s to quibble? It’s the novelist’s license to shape her material. Interestingly enough, though, despite its import the Blast itself is given short shrift, its fateful moments given as a flat iteration of details we know all too well, having heard them many times before. No doubt aware of this, Watt sacrifices their drama in order to heighten the quieter, if wrenching, moments later on when her characters’ lives threaten to implode.

Genevieve Graham’s Tides of Honour (Simon and Schuster) follows Hugh MacLennan’s romantic lead.

Dazzle Patterns exposes three main challenges any Explosion novelist faces: knowing if and when factual details are familiar enough, or too familiar, to readers; understanding how many liberties can be taken with what’s actual; and figuring out where in the story to position an event so forceful it sucks the air out of most everything else. A local writer married to the facts, I had no trouble with the first two; it was the third that gave me a hard time, the incendiary moment itself eventually becoming my story’s climax.

Throughout her book, Watt provides factual information, which most local readers will already know but readers less familiar with the Explosion will find to be crucial. The bigger problem is how she often uses dialogue to present it, resulting in a wooden effect that limits the appeal of certain characters to our sympathies. Others come off as preachy, especially Lismer’s character, based on the famous Group of Seven member.

It’s unfortunate because, for Watt’s fiction to be fully convincing, we need to believe his espousals of art’s power not just to heal the wounded psyche, but also to replace brutality with beauty. Clare’s words, luckily, are more plainspoken: “I had hallucinations after the explosion, a side effect of losing my eye. The only way I could endure them was by drawing them.” It’s in Watt’s descriptions of Clare’s art classes, particularly in life drawing—written clearly and truthfully from Watt’s artist’s perspective—that Dazzle Patterns shines.

Art takes a critical place in Laffoley’s A Halifax Christmas Carol, too. With typical directness, while searching clippings for help in locating the mysterious orphan, his characters Michael and Tess Archer, Bell’s female counterpart at the newspaper, debate the merits of art over reportage. “I just think art, not facts, is the way to understand truth,” says Tess. Michael argues, “This truth is undiluted. The facts line up in only one way, like puzzle pieces snapping into place. When they click together, you have the full picture. You have truth…the truth is born of these collected facts. No other truth can apply.”

Tess, the more sympathetic of the two, gets the last word: “I don’t see it that way. You choose the facts that suit the narrative you are chasing.”

Exactly—and you have to like how Laffoley lays it out. Still, I think the Explosion throws up certain boundaries. Its magnitude remains fixed: I’m not sure knowingly glossing or embroidering its horrific details serves anyone. Perhaps MacLennan had it easiest, writing when the Explosion was a novelist’s virgin terrain. Sticking to the available facts, as a chronicle of events leading up to, during and following the blast, Barometer Rising retains its immediacy.

Lawson has chosen wisely in taking a similar approach in A Blinding Light. Her nuanced telling keeps us on edge, hoping moment by moment that her characters will survive against the odds, wondering whether or not they’ll recover from their gruesome yet understated injuries. Mirroring MacLennan, Lawson provides the perfect build-up to the event, quickly drawing us into the lives of her characters—twelve-year-old Livy, her teenaged brother Will and their widowed mother—enlisting our sympathy as they adjust to losing their father the previous May. Not a detail is wasted; nothing feels untrue or fabricated, everything placed to further reveal these youthful characters and their hopes, strengths and weaknesses, as well as their engagement in a milieu that underpins what takes place.

We fear for everyone’s safety, root for their capacity to endure and recognize Livy’s dawning social conscience when she wonders, “How did I survive?”and is told by the family’s maid, Kathleen, “I don’t know. But you did. Now you have to make it matter.”

Lawson’s economy in creating a layered and utterly convincing story makes it appealing to readers of all ages. The War and its climate of anti-German hysteria form a subtle backdrop, raised by the mystery that surrounds Ernst Schneider’s—Livy and Will’s German-born father’s—death at sea. Suspicions around his activities dramatize the paranoia that arose about German nationals being spies, amid rumours that Germans caused the Explosion. At the inquiry that soon followed the disaster, the urge to lay blame and find scapegoats adds further tension to Livy and Will’s story in this thoughtful interweaving of fiction and fact.

Balancing what we know and respect in a quantitative way to be true with what we imagine and hope to convey as deeper truth is always a tricky task. The task may get trickier as the Explosion continues to gain notoriety beyond Atlantic Canada and among readers only vaguely acquainted with it. It’s still astonishing how many people know little or nothing about it and are shocked to discover its details, despite the fact that these are documented extensively online. A decade ago, when Glass Voices came out, I was floored to meet readers from the rest of Canada and the United States who had never heard of it. Most were anxious to know more—perhaps in the wake of that other North American catastrophe, 9/11, whose cost in human lives was similar, though its cause was different. Human evil versus human error, stupidity or frailty, call it what you like, the consequences for victims and their families were, and remain, grotesquely comparable.

Its impact aside, the Explosion remains a source of fascination, even an obsession, because it has all the ingredients of legend, a saga with undying appeal—perhaps especially so the further we get from its grisly realities and the horrible suffering it inflicted. Part of its appeal must lie in the city’s recovery—the “happy” ending we cling to and the lessons in charity and selfless bravery and kindness it taught. Lessons we hope all of history teaches to anyone paying attention. But as the Explosion’s ever-broadening stream of nonfiction and fictional narratives demonstrates, the question it poses—why it had to happen—will always be a slippery one. We can blame humanity’s propensity to take up arms and the Great War for making Halifax’s harbour a sitting duck. But why its people? Why the residents of Turtle Grove and Richmond and not more moneyed ones in the South End? Why anyone?

Why not.

Here the facts hit a wall, a solid, unexploded one that fiction can scale if not quite breach. The only conceivable answer must be that catastrophe brings chances for ordinary people to shine, for the overlooked to do their heroic best. We commemorate the aid that poured in, repaying the kindness by sending a tree to Boston each Christmas.

But, more intimately, we celebrate the fearless generosity symbolized, for instance, by Steven Laffoley’s version of Tiny Tim. Laffoley’s orphan is based on Tommy Sulkis, a 10-year-old paper boy-philanthropist who survived the Explosion exactly as his character does and later headed a charity providing Christmas gifts to Halifax’s poor.

Fiction, too, comes out of generosity and bravery, albeit of the imagination. Anyone who writes stories or makes other forms of art knows how creative acts can give hardships form enough to make them bearable.

Anyone who lives in the world knows that none of us are immune to devastation—and this remains the legacy of the disaster we Haligonians lay claim to. It’s a lesson for the ages that keeps evolving through the creation of fiction.

So, what next? How do we give the Explosion story over, as it passes into the hands of future novelists bound to take it up, particularly as with time the boundaries between fact and fabrication become increasingly permeable? The answer, I imagine, is that we do so by seeing the events of 1917 as a starting point. They are a springboard for new and endless variations on the themes of human frailty, endurance and the lessons in compassion that come of experiencing things, albeit vicariously, through the lives of fictional characters.

If we, their makers, choose, then these characters will go before us into danger, testing the waters as nimbly as though they walked on them. It’s our job to keep seeking answers to the unanswerable.

As Walter Stone, Laffoley’s fictitious newspaper publisher, instructs his employee, “You’re a good reporter, Michael, the best I have. You’re tenacious as hell, and you report the facts like few others. But there is a difference between the facts and the truth. Even after all the facts are on the table, the truth may still need to be found.”

Indeed, yes.

Written By

Based in Halifax, Carol Bruneau is the author of seven books, including Glass Voices and the just-released short story collection, A Bird on Every Tree (Nimbus).

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Fiction Brings Halifax Explosion to Heart

New novels allow us to investigate the unknowable questions behind unacceptable realities...
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