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Old 08-16-2018, 11:12 PM   #31
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I certainly wasn't suggesting that you are a dumb American, and I don't expect people to know who was Prince of Wales when. My point was that if someone wanted to clarify who this person was, it can be looked up. It doesn't need to be included in tedious detail in the text.

Probably my problem is that I have expectations of a book claiming to be a non-fiction history, as opposed to historical fiction, because history is a particular interest of mine. So I hope we can just agree to disagree on the book and the way it is written.
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Old 08-17-2018, 12:20 AM   #32
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I certainly wasn't suggesting that you are a dumb American, and I don't expect people to know who was Prince of Wales when. My point was that if someone wanted to clarify who this person was, it can be looked up. It doesn't need to be included in tedious detail in the text.

Probably my problem is that I have expectations of a book claiming to be a non-fiction history, as opposed to historical fiction, because history is a particular interest of mine. So I hope we can just agree to disagree on the book and the way it is written.
No, I didn't really think you were suggesting I'm a dumb American, and I shouldn't have implied it. But I do not understand why anyone should object to an author adding a little bit of detail so that the reader doesn't have to stop to figure out who someone is or to look it up. What is wrong with the author being specific? And just where do you want to draw the line on what is tedious detail and what is detail helpful or interesting to the reader?

If someone throws a name at me, I want a clue. Sometimes I need it, sometimes I don't. But how does it hurt anything to have that clue included? We don't all have the same frames of reference in history, literature, popular culture, whatever. Why is it objectionable for an author to take into account readers' different levels of knowledge?
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Old 08-17-2018, 12:36 AM   #33
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Perhaps it's more a matter of style, and the way in which Bacon piles one fact on top of another, on top of another. For me, it's unnecessary padding, and these were just a couple of examples of that. (The whole detailed examination of Joseph Barss's life and times was the gigantic example of Bacon's padding.)

But if it works for you, and is of interest, that's fine. It would be a dull world if we all liked the same things and thought the same way!
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Old 08-17-2018, 02:05 AM   #34
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I found this website, which may be of interest. It includes old photographs following the explosion, and five accounts of individual experiences being read out.

https://novascotia.ca/archives/remembrance/default.asp
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Old 08-17-2018, 04:33 AM   #35
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I'm still not finished, but like Catlady I'm content to watch the discussion of a non-fiction book while still reading.

I am surprised at the strength of negative feeling for this book. It would seem to mirror how I felt about The Radium Girls - but I don't feel that way about this one ... or I didn't. My impression is changing.


The introduction (part 1, chapter 1):

I thought it was a pleasing way to introduce the story. It did seem a bit odd to have part 1 entitled "The Forgotten Story" and then lead in with this brief chapter showing that it had not been forgotten. But I saw no particular offensiveness. It did not seem, to me, to be an attempt to make it an American story. ... But then I was not aware of the inaccuracy issybird points out regarding when, and how, the Christmas tree became a regular event. It seems that it truly was an almost entirely commercial venture at the start, and then taken over by government when commerce lost interest. That is very different to the impression Bacon gave in the lead-in chapter, and is the sort of distortion that I find quite offensive in this sort of book; now it seems that I have to second-guess everything he presents.


The lead-in to the event:

I can certainly agree that the Barss part of the tale was given in excess, although I did find it interesting. I would attribute this excess to the author trying to give the reader a more personal stake in the story, but I do think he takes it too far. This becomes particularly apparent when, on returning to Halifax, about chapter 12 or 13, I realised I'd lost my place amid everything that Bacon had been setting up before. It took a while to remember who all the other players were.

Like Catlady, one of the things I like about the book (so far, anyway) has been the quirky connections and odd little historical asides. (eg: The relatively recent acceptance by doctors that they should wash their hands.) I think this sort of detail makes sure the reader really understands that we are talking about a different time, a different way of thinking. It helps stop the reader from making misplaced modern judgements that do not apply. (You might see that I'm thinking of The Radium Girls again here, which covers an overlapping period with this book, but makes it so easy to make modern assumptions.)

Of course, discovering that some of these tid-bit facts are blatant errors (Halifax UK vs Halifax Canada for the company Willis & Bates as manufacturers of the doughboy helmets) is very disappointing, and calls into question the other things stated as fact.

I have found some other oddities, like in Chapter 12: "Picric acid is notoriously unstable, and even more so when dry, because it’s especially sensitive to friction and shock—so sensitive, in fact, that when picric acid is stored in labs, merely turning the lid of a jar of the chemical, if dried particles are stuck between the bottle and the stopper, can blow up the entire lab." and then a few paragraphs later "while picric acid doesn’t explode until it reaches 572 degrees Fahrenheit". Of course the distinction is presumably between wet and dry versions, but the text leaves conflicting impressions, and when it comes to historical work, impressions are important.


I'm still reading about the event itself.

It's not a hard book to read, and much less annoying to me than I found with The Radium Girls, at least in general writing terms. Discovering that this book has errors of substance is a concern. Learning here that much of the book was apparently "borrowed" from the Janet Kitz book is also a (big) concern.

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Old 08-17-2018, 09:09 AM   #36
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I suspect that Halifax is a "forgotten story" in the US, or at least in parts of it, but is in no way forgotten in Canada. Perhaps another example of the book being US-centric.

I had certainly never heard of the explosion, but we are on the other side of the world. (I was pleased to see that Australia sent aid, as did so many other countries.)
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Old 08-17-2018, 11:19 AM   #37
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I think "forgotten story" is quite appropriate, it just struck me as an odd juxtaposition: "forgotten story" title over a brief description of people remembering it every year. (This is just one of several things about this book that make me think it could have done with a much better editor - or the author paying more attention to their editor, as the case may be.)

I had heard of the disaster before, most recently through reading the John Irving's Until I find You; Irving provides quite a good summary of the event considering the relatively small part of the book that talks of it.
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Old 08-17-2018, 09:01 PM   #38
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I've been out of town for a few days and didn't have a chance to chime in here (although I have been following along.)

Overall, I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed The Radium Girls. Not because the topic is more interesting or the writing is much better (I would call it a wash) but because it didn't feel completely biased like TRG did.

I gave this book 4 stars. It was engaging, informative, and (seemingly) well researched. And then I read this thread....after reading an learning more here I have to drop my rating a couple stars.

My take on "fault" is that the explosion is almost entirely the fault of the Imo -they were on the wrong side of the channel, going too fast, and not following accepted procedures (not moving over when the Mont-Blanc responded that no they wouldn't switch sides). I don't fault the MB for fleeing and not putting up a red flag even though it would have normally been required and would have been easy to do. They were specifically told not to earlier due to the war and the pilot should have told them to do that if it was required for Halifax at the time. I wish we knew whether or not the pilot on the Imo told the captain to yield and move over. That seems like the main intentional rather than accidental cause for the incident. The rest of it was a series of unfortunate events (both trying to swerve at the same time, etc.) but the Imo plowing forward on the wrong side of the channel and then refusing to correct themselves was deliberate.

I have a hard time blaming the crew of the Mont-Blanc for fleeing. Given the nature of the explosives the fact that there was ~15 minutes before the explosion to flee was surprising. It was obvious they didn't think that would happen. Yes, looking back they should have taken more time to warn off everyone else but even if they knew they had 10+ minutes, could they really have saved much? Some of the boats would have been able to get away (although the wave might have gotten them anyway) but could the neighborhoods on both sides of the harbor have been warned and evacuated in time? The situation really called for an in-depth what if...

Rather than re-hash much of what has already been said, I will just comment on some of the other things that have already been said.

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The author gave a convincing account of the legal proceedings for me. I'd wondered about the perversity of the legal proceedings before reading this book.
I really would have liked more on the legal proceedings. It felt like we only had the executive summary of them and barely any of the actual substance.

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I never knew that Canadians worried about U.S. annexation as recently as a century ago; I didn't realize that the idea of manifest destiny had survived that long.
As an American I was surprised by this too. I have heard the joke about Canada being the 51st state but never really gave it much thought other than as commentary about how similar we are in many respects.

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This book read like a reference piece, the author assuming that it would be used for research and not read entirely in one sitting. That is fine, but I wondered several times during the narrative if he were not fictionalizing some of the conversations and thoughts of individuals. That there were no citations or footnotes in the text itself reinforced this, though I gathered by the time I got to the end that these conversations, et al were well-researched.
I was a little skeptical about the conversations but he referred to letters enough as sources that I wasn't turned off by them even when a letter or other source wasn't mentioned with each one.

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The Christmas tree in Boston should not have been the hook for a history of a Canadian event. Bacon in fact has the attitude he ascribes (falsely) to the United States government; it's all about the US. Just those first few paragraphs would have had me looking for a different book if I came to this as a Canadian.
If the opening was completely true and all there was to it, I can see it working as a great hook for this book. This was obviously written for a US audience and getting a US centric hook makes sense. After finding out that the tree was a blatent act of advertisement and way of promoting tourism it turned my stomach. Really?! The hook for you book is an advertisement? Ugh.

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Second, Barss. Whatever has Barss to do with anything? Pages and pages of his boyhood, young manhood, and experience in the trenches (compare that to the cursory treatment of the inquiry) which were entirely irrelevant to the event. And then it turns out Barss, like that Christmas tree* one of the two fulcra of the entire account of a major disaster, is there because his three days helping out afterwards served as the epiphany for his changing his life.
I agree about Barss too, even while reading I was confused why there was so much about his small role in this. My guess at the time was that Bacon needed to hit some page length/word count and there wasn't enough other "personal" background available to have a good build-up of what the area was like. I suppose since this is a WWI era tragedy he needed someone that had participated in the trench warfare so that he had an excuse to describe some of that. It still felt like he could have done something different (or just excised that entirely.) I didn't realize Barss had featured in other books of his.

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Guess what? The company, which did manufacture lanterns in both world wars, was located in Halifax, England, not Halifax, Canada.
This is the stuff that made me re-think my score. Yes, I still enjoyed it and learned a lot but how much of it can I trust? Argh!

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1. In his lead-up to the terrible event itself, describing one of the families that was to be affected, he wrote "With fourteen kids, the milking cow in the backyard wasn't for show-and-tell". I don't know whether he thought he was being funny in saying this, but it jars badly.

2. In one of his later chapters devoted to the exploits of Joseph Barss, we are told: "He also sang in the First Congregational Church under the leadership of Lloyd C Douglas, who would go on to write The Robe, which sold 2 million copies and became a movie starring Richard Burton.

When reading about the Halifax explosion, I really needed to know that fascinating piece of information!
I personally liked the asides. Some of them were less useful than others but overall they worked for me. If they had been longer I would not have liked them as much though.
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Old 08-17-2018, 10:05 PM   #39
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One of the (many) things that troubled me about the book was its sub-title: "A World War One Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism".

Most of that is right ... but where is the treachery? That's a pretty strong word to use without good cause. While people initially and understandably thought that Germans might have been to blame, Bacon doesn't pursue this, so unless he thinks the members of the crew of the Mont Blanc were displaying treachery (which they were not, given that it means a deliberate act of betrayal or sabotage), such a dramatic word is completely inappropriate. It's one of the reasons I referred earlier to the book as tabloid journalism.

Janet Kitz however does give some interesting information which suggests at least a possibility of a deliberate act of sabotage by the helmsman of the Imo, even involving the murder of the captain and the pilot in order to carry this out.

However, it was never properly investigated, and one question would have to be how the very limited knowledge of the Mont Blanc's cargo could have been known, unless that knowledge was relayed from New York.
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Old 08-18-2018, 09:16 AM   #40
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One of the (many) things that troubled me about the book was its sub-title: "A World War One Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism".

Most of that is right ... but where is the treachery? That's a pretty strong word to use without good cause. While people initially and understandably thought that Germans might have been to blame, Bacon doesn't pursue this, so unless he thinks the members of the crew of the Mont Blanc were displaying treachery (which they were not, given that it means a deliberate act of betrayal or sabotage), such a dramatic word is completely inappropriate. It's one of the reasons I referred earlier to the book as tabloid journalism.
Much as I find Bacon's methods reprehensible, he might not have been responsible for the title, which could have been cooked up by the marketing folks at HarperCollins. The whole endeavor screams marketing, or as you rightly call it, tabloid journalism. Pick a sexy event, aka a human tragedy, whose centenary is coming up, cobble together a book based on others' research, tilt it toward the American market with specious historical claims, slap a title on it with hot-button words and Bob's your uncle! Start planning the publicity tour.
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Old 08-18-2018, 10:25 AM   #41
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As an American I was surprised by this too. I have heard the joke about Canada being the 51st state but never really gave it much thought other than as commentary about how similar we are in many respects.
I'm not going to cite all the posts that expressed something similar, but there's a reason for your surprise that the US wanted to annex Canada as late as 1911. It's not true.

In fact, since the end of the War of 1812, the US had abandoned the incursion into Canada as a policy objective (among other issues, it wasn't working out). It's worth noting that during the War of 1812 Canada was British and Britain was the enemy, for good reasons such as the suppression of US trade and the impressment of its nationals on the high seas.

In 1871, the US and the UK were signatories to the Treaty of Washington, to clear up hanging issues related to the US Civil War and including matters related to Canada (mostly swapping the right of the US to navigate on the St. Lawrence for a similar right for Canada on Lake Michigan). But the point is that Canada had been self-governing since 1867 although Britain continued to control Canada's foreign relations and by signing the treaty, the US in effect acknowledged Canadian sovereignty.

Bacon took some bombast on the part of a few individuals, such as the occasional posturing speech in Congress that resulted in no votes or legislation and inflated that into serious US aims on Canada to serve his narrative about two countries at loggerheads. It was no worse and no different from a Canadian campaigning on the basis of a perceived US threat, even if one didn't exist (and I'm taking Bacon's claims into account here, even though I don't trust him). In fact, the two countries rubbed along. Issues? Most certainly. Did many Canadians resent US neutrality in the Great War? Of course. But these were not two countries which were enemies under the skin.

However, the story Bacon wants to sell is how the explosion served to transform two countries, one with aggressive aims and the other a resentful and fearful object, into friends. At best, he grossly overstates this. I see it as exploitative, again, of a tragedy and his way of making the story about the US in order to sell to the US market. But it's erroneous history, where he inflates passing emotions and posturing into policy. The last serious American designs on the British territory to its direct north dated a century earlier than Bacon claims and the US never planned an annexation of Canada.
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Old 08-18-2018, 10:38 AM   #42
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Well, I finished.

The central part of the book, covering the event and its immediate aftermath, contained rather more than its fair share of newspaper headlines masquerading as narrative text. Hmm... I came close it myself, just there . (I'm wondering if this is the source of issybird's accusation of poor writing?)

There were quite a few places where I think a lack of good editorial influence is apparent, not to mention proof-readers/fact-checkers. I already mentioned the picric acid description, a few other examples include:
Spoiler:
  • Off the cuff comments like this: "Le Médec’s main concern was not being reduced to shrapnel." and "Corpses were scattered throughout the rubble as though a mannequin warehouse had been bombed" seemed rather lacking in taste and grace to my eye.
  • Much was made of Vincent Coleman's actions, even to the extent of repeating emphasis in an almost interruptive way. eg: "And this is what makes Vincent Coleman’s actions that day all the more remarkable." I'm not saying Coleman's actions were not worthy of praise, but there was something peculiar, maybe tacked-on, about how it appeared in the text.
  • In the aftermath he speaks of "For two solid weeks fifty soldiers were assigned the task of burying the dead, right up to Christmas Eve." but had previously said the first burial was 17-Dec. It doesn't add up. Presumably the fifty soldiers had to start work before the first burial, but was it 6 days of digging without any burials? I don't know, but as it reads now it does not make sense. There are other snippets like this spread throughout the book.
  • This "Humphrey Mellish, who would prove to be every bit as mushy as his name." is not only ugly/unfortunate phrasing, it's not clear what he means until you read on and find out that Mellish was ineffective. (I am inclined to think Mellish may merely have been trying to considerate, unlike his bullish opponent.)


But the complaints aside, there were some good things in this work.

The book makes a number of interesting side-references to aspects of World War I: the events of the first Christmas, the life, poetry and death of Wilfred Owen, and more. If you can stand the heartbreak, for more detail I recommend the 1996 mini-series narrated by Judy Dench, called 1914-1918.

I thought this apt: "The Great War had already spanned a good portion of the children’s young lives, so it had been normalized, something they lived with every day."

I thought this was an interesting observation: "This was the era that commercialized Christmas, after all, by purchasing teddy bears, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets, all available in stacks at a new institution called the department store—Eaton’s in Canada, and Sears, Roebuck in the United States."

That "Looting was virtually non-existent" seems incredible, and leaves me wondering how much was due to the influence of the war. Or was it the sheer size of the devastation?

I liked this line: "met extraordinary circumstances with basic goodness. During these trying days, that was heroic enough."

I thought this deserved highlighting: "The objective pursuit of truth was impeded by the fact that Imo’s captain, Haakon From, and Harbour Pilot William Hayes had both been killed [...]" This single fact makes the legal arguments later rather open to conjecture: might there have been some reason for the behaviour of the Imo? (I see Bookpossum's recent post makes reference to this idea, so I'm obviously not the only one having such thoughts.)

This little tid-bit was interesting to discover: "If the mother had been debilitated or killed while the father was off at war, family or friends often took their children, with a catch: they had to be of the same religion."

And this struck me as odd: "A year after the Richmond reunion, on June 9, 1985, they [...] inserted a time capsule in the tower, to be opened on December 6, 2017, the hundredth anniversary of the explosion." Who creates a time-capsule for just 32 years?

And the conclusion harks back to the opening, where it speaks of the Christmas trees for Boston and "Halifax resurrected the tradition". Say what? Once does not a tradition make!

In the acknowledgements we see: "All of these authors and experts agreed to meet with me on my trips to their city, giving generously of their time and knowledge during our long conversations." This includes reference Janet Kitz (mistakenly spelled as "Katz" in this section). This gives me some hope that, however much it may appear to be excess copying/reference to Kitz's work, it has still found acceptance by Kitz - and if true, that's good enough.
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Old 08-18-2018, 11:32 AM   #43
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[...] However, the story Bacon wants to sell is how the explosion served to transform two countries, one with aggressive aims and the other a resentful and fearful object, into friends. At best, he grossly overstates this. I see it as exploitative, again, of a tragedy and his way of making the story about the US in order to sell to the US market. But it's erroneous history, where he inflates passing emotions and posturing into policy. The last serious American designs on the British territory to its direct north dated a century earlier than Bacon claims and the US never planned an annexation of Canada.
There's a whole Clive Cussler novel based on the merging America/Canada thing. Don't tell me he made it up!

I'm happy to buy a large part your explanation - particularly that Bacon overstates the situation rather than makes it up - but his reasoning is not all based on bombast by politicians. There are both immediate and historical reasons for some level of - let's call it - disagreement between the two countries at the time, which is why the situation as Bacon presents it does not seem unreasonable. Sure, things may not have been as a strong as Bacon would have us believe, but his presentation is not totally without substance.

I am more curious about your strength of feeling with this exploitation of history when you seemed much less offended (than I was anyway) with Kate Moore's exploitation of readers' emotions in The Radium Girls, suggesting (if I remember correctly) it was suitable for popular historical fiction. Doesn't the same excuse apply here?

I might also ask myself the same question in reverse: why do I not find this book as offensive as I found The Radium Girls? And I've been trying to figure that out. It may be that Bacon has simply been cleverer in his deceptions, you need to read outside his book to discover where he has been exaggerating or misrepresenting, whereas Moore was more upfront, with most(?) of her manipulations obvious in the text: upfront annoying rather than belatedly annoying. ... Or it may be that I think Bacon's misrepresentations are incidental, they don't really affect the history being presented (the Christmas tree thing is an emotional hook but has nothing to do with history - which is, of course, the problem; and the political situation between America and Canada is insignificant against the backdrop of the Great War and Halifax's role in that.) Whereas Moore annoyed me because her representation threatened to distort and obscure the history she should have been trying to illuminate.
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Old 08-18-2018, 12:03 PM   #44
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[...] My take on "fault" is that the explosion is almost entirely the fault of the Imo -they were on the wrong side of the channel, going too fast, and not following accepted procedures (not moving over when the Mont-Blanc responded that no they wouldn't switch sides). I don't fault the MB for fleeing and not putting up a red flag even though it would have normally been required and would have been easy to do. They were specifically told not to earlier due to the war and the pilot should have told them to do that if it was required for Halifax at the time. I wish we knew whether or not the pilot on the Imo told the captain to yield and move over. That seems like the main intentional rather than accidental cause for the incident. The rest of it was a series of unfortunate events (both trying to swerve at the same time, etc.) but the Imo plowing forward on the wrong side of the channel and then refusing to correct themselves was deliberate.
I was of much the same opinion until I got to the privy council opinion:
Quote:
They underscored the simplicity of the “collision rule,” which holds that each ship, when faced with a possible collision, had only two choices: stop or reverse. Both ships, the Lords argued, should have gone full speed astern “long before they were allowed to approach so close to each other as 500 feet. Both Masters were to blame for not having prevented their respective ships from getting into it.”
This, it seems to me, is really the core of it. From and Hayes in Imo should have backed up because they were on the wrong side of the road, Le Médec and Mackey in Mont-Blanc should have stopped or backed up because he was sitting on bomb and he knew it, and he knew that no one else knew it (he had not raised the red flag), so it was his responsibility to stay clear.

20-20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Then there's the possibility that something else was happening on Imo that we never got to learn about - see Bookpossum's post.

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I have a hard time blaming the crew of the Mont-Blanc for fleeing. Given the nature of the explosives the fact that there was ~15 minutes before the explosion to flee was surprising. It was obvious they didn't think that would happen. Yes, looking back they should have taken more time to warn off everyone else but even if they knew they had 10+ minutes, could they really have saved much? Some of the boats would have been able to get away (although the wave might have gotten them anyway) but could the neighborhoods on both sides of the harbor have been warned and evacuated in time? The situation really called for an in-depth what if... [...]
This is a difficult situation. I can understand their fleeing, but I can still find some 20-20 hindsight blame. Logic (if anyone had been thinking rationally) should have told them that if they had as little time as they thought then they would not have enough time to get clear, so why bother when even a brief amount of time onboard might have improved the situation significantly, and if there was time to get clear, then there was definitely time to get the ship on a better course (or even just stop where they were) and/or to warn others to stay clear and so save lives. There was a war on, they'd been under threat of attack since leaving New York, was it really unreasonable to expect (at least some of) them to stay aboard and try to minimise the damage?

I'm not making any bets on whether I'd have behaved any better in their position, I'm just saying what seems apparent from the comfort and safety of my desk a hundred years on.
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Old 08-18-2018, 01:59 PM   #45
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I liked the book, despite the flaws. I had never heard of the Halifax explosion before, so all the information was new to me. If there were mistakes, I didn't focus on them (I wouldn't have noticed them if not for reading the comments here), and while they may be regrettable and induce angst in historians and experts, for me they ultimately didn't detract from the main story of a disaster and its aftermath.

I didn't care about the relatively short shrift given to legal proceedings--it was a human error accident, and I don't know that there's a great lesson to be learned from the specifics of what happened in the harbor, or that's there's something that could have prevented it. That's where it differs greatly from Radium Girls, where accountability mattered, where the lessons learned could make future workers safer in the workplace.

It was disappointing to learn that the Christmas trees weren't sent every year since the disaster, as implied in the opening. But mostly I thought it was an interesting and uplifting story of people coming together to deal with tragedy.
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