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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Blizzard of Glass, written by Sally M. Walker. Square Fish, Macmillan, Raincoast. 2011. $14.99 ages 10 and up

"A short, terrible silence followed the explosion. All the sounds of a lively city in 1917 - wagon wheels rolling over cobblestones, horses neighing, railroad cars wheezing to a stop, the tram rumbling down its track, dogs barking, children laughing on their way to school, stevedores shouting out directions - simply stopped. Then, slowly, the survivors began to stir."

Only those who lived at the time of this terrible explosion can truly know the pain that it caused for so many in December 1917. It is left to families, historians and skilled writers to help those of us living today to begin to understand the surprise and devastation that occurred when the collision between the Mont-Blanc and the Imo set off an explosion that resulted in unprecedented loss and natural disaster.

The explosion and its resulting tsunami brought Halifax and nearby Dartmouth to its knees. Homes, many businesses and workplaces were wiped clear away. To add insult to injury, a blinding blizzard the following day kept crews from rescuing many who were in grave danger. Far too many people died, lives were changed forever, and the people of Nova Scotia, Canada and the world began immediately to bring some sense of order and hope to those who were left.

Sally Howard drew me quickly and emphatically into this 'true story of World War I' with a very real sense of immediacy and her ability to create tension as we first learn the events that lead these two ships to be in Halifax Harbour on the fateful day:

"For more than a day, stevedores stuffed Mont-Blanc's four holds with barrels, kegs, and cases    containing pitric acid, trinitrotoluene (often called TNT), and a substance called gun cotton. All of these materials are explosives. And there was more. Metal drums, stacked three to four high and filled with a flammable chemical called benzene, lined Mont-Blanc's deck. By the time she was loaded,  Mont-Blanc was a monstrously large bomb packed with 2,925 tons of explosive materials - a truly deadly cargo."

The Mont-Blanc needed convoy protection to cross the Atlantic and stopped in Halifax to wait for a convoy, or to be advised of the safest and surest route across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the Belgian ship Imo was preparing for departure, on its way to New York to pick up provisions to aid  war-ravaged Belgium:

"As Imo made her way toward the Narrows, she was hidden from the view of ships farther south in the harbor by the hilly land of the Richmond neighborhood. Pilot Hayes knew that harbor regulations required him to keep Imo closer to the Halifax shoreline; heading seaward, this was on Imo's starboard side.. What Hayes didn't realize was that Mont-Blanc was in the harbor. He hadn't been informed that she was incoming."

Ms. Walker focuses on the accident...she must; but, she also chooses to tell the stories of five families and how the explosion and its resulting devastation had a powerful impact on the people living in the area of the blast. She introduces the Hooks who live in Dartmouth, the Loneclouds and MacDonalds who live in nearby Tufts Cove, the Pattisons who live in the Richmond area of Halifax, the O'Briens who live near the Welllington Barracks and the Colemans. Their lives take their usual course on that fateful day: breakfast, work, school, caring for the ill. No one was thinking about the ships in the harbor...thankfully.

This is a very thorough and riveting account of the explosion and all that comes after it. The final chapter allows that life goes on, painful memories linger, the resilience of humankind allows hope and healing to find a place in our hearts:

"After the explosion, hope arrived in Halifax and Dartmouth with the outpouring of aid from strangers. Medical help, food, clothing, and supplies were part of it. In fact, the relief response to the harbor explosion serves as a model for today's relief missions."

Acknowledgements, archival photographs, source notes, a selected bibliography, and an index assure that those who want to look deeper have every incentive needed to do just that!

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