Many authors have written admirable books on disastrous events; Sally Walker went beyond a mere narrative, however. From the opening 2-page spread of 5 family trees, the reader should know this story will be handled differently.
The Halifax explosion of 1917 was a horrific tale of oversights, mistakes, assumptions, and ignorance. When two ships collided in the Halifax harbor, one filled to the brim with TNT bound for Europe and the War to End All Wars, the other, ironically, meant to pick up medical supplies for the war’s victims, they caused the largest man-made explosion in history. Buildings in a 16-mile radius were flattened, glass flung far and wide. People 250 miles away felt the ground shake. It caused a tsunami wave up to 45 feet high. And then, just as rescue efforts were being organized and sent to Halifax, a blizzard set in, hampering and even halting the heroic attempts to recover survivors and bring medical help. Tragedy heaped upon tragedy in the ensuing days.
Sally Walker takes the reader to Halifax through the eyes of the men, women, and children of 5 families as they rise to prepare for the day, children to dress for school, men to go to work, women to begin their day of household chores and child care. She describes how the freighter Mont-Blanc was specially outfitted to transport its colossal cargo as safely as possible. We are onboard the freighter as it enters the harbor and carefully negotiates its narrows.
With abundant photographs of the area before (and after) the explosion, as well as of the family members she follows, Walker makes the reader feel as if these people are acquaintances, and this place is familiar. We know that Vincent Pattison always sets his pocket watch 5 minutes ahead because he doesn’t like to be late, and that his 11-year-old daughter had to stay home from school that day to nurse a cold. Vincent Coleman was a telegrapher for the railroad. The captains and pilots of the two ships are busy working their way toward opposite ends of the harbor, uninformed and misinformed of each other’s presence.
When the ships collide, Coleman remains at his desk as everyone else flees the harbor area; he telegraphs a warning to incoming trains that they are heading toward disaster. He manages a “goodbye” at the end of the message. He dies instantly, his telegraph key still with him.
Walker objectively describes the anatomy of an explosion, how a massive impact affects the human body, how a tsunami is formed, why glass figures so prominently in this instance, and the aftermath of an explosion so huge only the atom bomb in 1945 Hiroshima exceeds it.
Most remarkable of all, however, is her story of the survivors, children seeking parents, parents seeking children, wandering through an unrecognizable wasteland hunting for their homes, and of course, the massive relief effort: people, food, supplies traveling for hundreds of miles to help, only to be hit with the worst blizzard of the season before they arrive.
The collection of photographs is heartbreaking and heart lifting, spanning the years of innocence before the explosion, the devastation after the fact, the pitiful rows of orphaned children covered in bandages, and finally the reconstruction and reunification of some of the families. Sally Walker’s book gives more than a snapshot of one of the worst maritime disasters in history; it sets the reader in its midst. Highly recommended. Ages 10 and up
Jane Behrens Teacher Librarian, Iowa USA
Summary: This unique book is a not-to-be-missed piece of history that leaves readers with a lasting impression. Walker has brought back to life the people and events who collided in a deadly way during the Halifax explosion of 1917. Walker sets up the time and place perfectly so that the reader understands both local and world events in the timeline leading up to this stunning misfortune. This non-fiction book is like a historical fiction page-turner, leading readers up to what they know will be a disastrous outcome for many of the key players but forcing them to read the whole story just to find out—who lived? Thoroughly researched in exhaustive detail, the book embeds deep connections between cause and effect. Older readers will be able to glean much information from the details on wartime/maritime history, the world-wide events in the aftermath of World War I that would ultimately lead to World War II, and how people lived in Halifax at that time. A stunning blow-by-blow scenario of exactly what happened on December 6th, including the exact destinations and whereabouts of each person profiled, begins on page 45 in the chapter ominously titled, “Shortly before nine o’clock.” In an afterword, the author explains how she came to write this story. If you read this historical account, you will never forget it—it’s “one of those books…” 978-0805089455 145 pages