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Old 07-11-2018, 08:02 AM   #1
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August 2018 Discussion • The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon is the August selection for the New Leaf Book Club.



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After steaming out of New York City on December 1, 1917, laden with a staggering three thousand tons of TNT and other explosives, the munitions ship Mont-Blanc fought its way up the Atlantic coast, through waters prowled by enemy U-boats. As it approached the lively port city of Halifax, Mont-Blanc's deadly cargo erupted with the force of 2.9 kilotons of TNT—the most powerful explosion ever visited on a human population, save for HIroshima and Nagasaki. Mont-Blanc was vaporized in one fifteenth of a second; a shockwave leveled the surrounding city. Next came a thirty-five-foot tsunami. Most astounding of all, however, were the incredible tales of survival and heroism that soon emerged from the rubble.

This is the unforgettable story told in John U. Bacon's The Great Halifax Explosion: a ticktock account of fateful decisions that led to doom, the human faces of the blast's 11,000 casualties, and the equally moving individual stories of those who lived and selflessly threw themselves into urgent rescue work that saved thousands.
AmazonUS: $14.99 | AmazonCA: $12.74 | AmazonAU: $14.99 | AmazonUK: Free | Kobo UK: Free

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Old 08-15-2018, 04:14 AM   #2
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It's time to discuss The Great Halifax Explosion. Everyone is welcome to participate; the more, the merrier. What did we think of it?
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Old 08-15-2018, 08:03 AM   #3
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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.

There were a few howlers in this book, but on minor points peripheral to the subject. Overall, it aligns with most of what I've previously read about the explosion.
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Old 08-15-2018, 01:14 PM   #4
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I enjoyed reading The Great Halifax Explosion. I am kind of a history buff, and I have visited Halifax, though this happened well before I learned about the incident we are reading about.

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.

Now, I learned quite a lot during this read. I had not known of the antipathy between the two countries involved, though as an American, I have been raised thinking that the annexation of Canada was all but inevitable (particularly if Quebec were to secede).

I had heard of the explosion and the great loss of life, but I was not aware of the magnitude of either of those things.

I feel that, based on the reporting this book, the master of the Imo was largely at fault, insisting on rushing through the harbor at high speed and driving on the wrong side of the road, so-to-speak. Sure, the captain of the freighter Mont Blanc made some deadly mistakes... he should have hoisted that red flag once he was in the harbor. Considering how nervous he and his crew were about the highly volatile load they were conveying, one would think he would set this simple precaution as soon as it was safe to do so. As noted near the end of the book, both captains and their respective harbor pilots should have gone full astern when their conflicting courses became evident.

Overall, a very enjoyable read for me, and if I ever get to Halifax again, I will certainly be looking around with this book and incident in mind.
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Old 08-15-2018, 02:18 PM   #5
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I'm not finished yet. I've found it interesting so far; the story of the explosion is all new to me.

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.
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Old 08-15-2018, 03:06 PM   #6
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For me this was both a very satisfying book and yet annoying at times. First, I guess, the bad parts:
1.) I spent the first 1/4 - 1/3 of the book trying to figure out who all these people were and why I should care. Especially some of the minutia of their lives.
2.) The eBook version was seriously hindered by the lack of insitu footnotes. Having them all at the end and not linked was a real pain.

The Good:
1.) I had fairly recently learned about the explosion and it's magnitude, via a CBC documentary, but it lacked the level of detail about exactly WHAT happened. And very little of the why.
2.) I had no idea of the level of antipathy between the two countries at the time. This book helped set the perspective.
3.) I really didn't realize that Americans actually thought they could annex us. That was never in the cards from this side!
4.) Once I got past that first section, and got into the actual events, I was completely and totally compelled to read. I couldn't put it down! Worth just on that level.
5.) This did an excellent job of identifying all the factors that led to the terrible event. No one factor was sufficient to have caused the result. As with most such disasters, it takes a whole string of events and failures to lead to catastrophe. That being said, I agree that the Imo has a larger part of the blame than he was ultimately charged with.

I'm really glad I nominated this book, and that we selected it. I know far more now about this terrible event, and the sheer scale of it. And I better understand why Nova Scotians compete to send their tree to Boston every year.
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Old 08-15-2018, 04:35 PM   #7
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For me this was both a very satisfying book and yet annoying at times. First, I guess, the bad parts:
1.) I spent the first 1/4 - 1/3 of the book trying to figure out who all these people were and why I should care. Especially some of the minutia of their lives.
I'm just past the first third, and I have been wondering how some of the people connect to the main event. But I'm finding them quite interesting, so it's not bothering me that I don't know how they fit into the big picture.
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Old 08-15-2018, 05:19 PM   #8
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Oh, they all fit in eventually, as I assumed they would. And I'm interested in them, just some of the detail was a bit much. (FWIW, this way of telling a story of a disaster by telling the story of people IN the disaster, was probably first done with Hiroshima, by John Hersey. A book I nominated for the MR club a couple of years ago. )

This story has some real heroes in it, not least the Bostonian who decided to just SEND the help he had and worry about the details later.
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Old 08-15-2018, 06:58 PM   #9
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Finally got the book from the library yesterday, and the way things are going this week, I won't be able to read til this weekend...but looking forward to digging in.

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Old 08-15-2018, 07:54 PM   #10
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Frankly, I am struggling to find anything positive to say about this book. (Sorry Charlie!)

It came across to me as cut-and-paste tabloid journalism at its worst, shamelessly cobbling together other people's research, along with a lot about his personal hero Joseph Barss, in order to cash in on the centenary of this dreadful disaster.

Indeed, so enraged was I by it that I then did some hunting around and came up with a book called Shattered City by Janet Kitz, which I have almost finished reading. She it was who did a vast amount of research back in the 1980s, interviewing survivors, working on trying to match the bags of belongings never claimed to people listed among the dead, and working on the display in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. This was opened on 6 December 1987, seventy years after the blast.

Bacon's book does show how heavily he used Kitz's book plus another by her about the children who survived the explosion, so at least he does acknowledge that.

About the best thing I can say is that I thought that Chapter 8 contained a good summary of the various failings which together led to the disaster. (That information is all in Kitz's book of course, in her detailed chapter on the Inquiry. Bacon skips over the Inquiry in about five and a half pages.)

I only wish I had read Kitz before I read Bacon.
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Old 08-15-2018, 08:50 PM   #11
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When I was in high school, I read Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan as my first foray into CanLit.

Published in 1941, Barometer Rising is a romantic novel, with the backdrop of the Halifax Explosion. It sucks as a romance; the first character to be introduced is Penny, who is waiting for her lover to return from the war - MacLennan studied the classics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

There are a few painful bits - the great lone land motif, trainloads of grain from the prairies, etc., which are MacLennan's tentative efforts at a national novel. However, the second half of the novel, which is about the explosion and its aftermath, works much better. MacLennan survived the explosion as a 10 year old, and he had personal access to many other survivors, so he wrote with intimate knowledge.
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Old 08-15-2018, 09:47 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by bfisher View Post
[...] There were a few howlers in this book, but on minor points peripheral to the subject. Overall, it aligns with most of what I've previously read about the explosion.
What do you mean by "howlers"?

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I'm just past the first third, and I have been wondering how some of the people connect to the main event. But I'm finding them quite interesting, so it's not bothering me that I don't know how they fit into the big picture.
That's about where I'm up to too. I like having all this background. I think this book as presented it well and most of it I can see where it fits. He has, perhaps, been going overboard with following the life of Barss in the trenches, but it's still interesting to me.

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[...] Indeed, so enraged was I by it that I then did some hunting around and came up with a book called Shattered City by Janet Kitz, which I have almost finished reading. She it was who did a vast amount of research back in the 1980s, interviewing survivors, working on trying to match the bags of belongings never claimed to people listed among the dead, and working on the display in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. This was opened on 6 December 1987, seventy years after the blast. [...]
This is interesting, something I will be watching for as I continue reading. I had noticed the lack of footnotes and in place reference links (as noted by CRussel), and after reading your comments I looked up the source notes in the back. This book obviously owes a great deal to Janet Kitz's work, amongst others like Ruffman and Howell, Ground Zero. Most history owes a lot to past historians, but you have to wonder how far is too far when it comes to referencing such recent research.

But I have been enjoying Bacon's writing so far. I like the very broad background he has given. There is so much more context to the events here that I cannot but (so far) compare it favourably against Kate Moore's The Radium Girls. The two books overlap in the periods covered, but in this book we're getting a look into so many different facets of life before the event that I feel much better placed to understand not only what happened, but at least some of the how and why.
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Old 08-16-2018, 07:01 AM   #13
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I'm not going to pull my punches, here; I thought this book was extremely bad. I found it shoddy history, offensive and poorly written, and that was before I read the Kitz account, which Bacon appropriates in huge swathes and without what seems to me proper annotation or citation. I would have abandoned it early on when I came across one fabrication too many, except that it was a book club read.

I won't go into all my objections now and Bookpossum has addressed the Kitz issue; I'll start with the offensiveness, on two particular fronts. If I were Canadian, I'd be infuriated by this treatment. Somehow, Bacon makes the focus of a Canadian national disaster the response of Massachusetts in sending aid, which is outrageous in itself and also leads Bacon to huge historical inaccuracies (or as I said on GR, "He's just making this up.") 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.

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'm sure those thousands of victims would have been glad that the sacrifice of their lives or health was not in vain. That was just heavy-handed and insensitive and what compounds it is that it's obviously because Barss figured heavily in Bacon's first book and he had all that perfectly good research still sitting around. More stuff to copy and paste.

*Let's also not overlook the fact that the Christmas tree, a lovely gesture in 1918, was not made an annual gift for more than half a century. Another name for that is "tourism."

And that's just for starters.
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Old 08-16-2018, 09:18 AM   #14
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Frankly, I am struggling to find anything positive to say about this book. (Sorry Charlie!)
It came across to me as cut-and-paste tabloid journalism at its worst, shamelessly cobbling together other people's research, along with a lot about his personal hero Joseph Barss, in order to cash in on the centenary of this dreadful disaster.
...
About the best thing I can say is that I thought that Chapter 8 contained a good summary of the various failings which together led to the disaster. (That information is all in Kitz's book of course, in her detailed chapter on the Inquiry. Bacon skips over the Inquiry in about five and a half pages.)
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I'm not going to pull my punches, here; I thought this book was extremely bad. I found it shoddy history, offensive and poorly written, and that was before I read the Kitz account, which Bacon appropriates in huge swathes and without what seems to me proper annotation or citation. I would have abandoned it early on when I came across one fabrication too many, except that it was a book club read.
...
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'm sure those thousands of victims would have been glad that the sacrifice of their lives or health was not in vain. That was just heavy-handed and insensitive and what compounds it is that it's obviously because Barss figured heavily in Bacon's first book and he had all that perfectly good research still sitting around. More stuff to copy and paste.
I'm going to have to go with the ladies on this one. I thought I had issues with Radium Girls, but this one took the cake a bit more.

I found the organization of the book troubling, as well as the tendency of the author to put thoughts and feelings into historical character's minds. This was a major complaint from me with Radium Girls as well. I was puzzled by the opening of the book, tying the good people of Boston and anti-American sentiment all up into one narrative theme.

But my biggest beef, like Issy, was Barss. I have more respect for soldiers of WWI than perhaps any other armed conflict. But what his history in the war had to do with this disaster beyond his ability to react to it was beyond me. And why was he so special to be singled out? Why was his personal narrative half of this story? The more cynical part of me wonders if it isn't his background as a seminal founder of collegiate hockey and his coaching career therein.

In addition to the thoughts above, I found the coverage of the legal proceedings to be very lacking. I had the same gripe with the Radium Girls.

I was largely disappointed with this one. But, it did help me to think and discuss with some others what I am actually looking for when I read history. I know Charlie drew a comparison to John Hersey's work Hiroshima, which I read back in college. I think Hersey pulled off the "story through the eyes of individuals" much better, and it shows me that I don't mind the form. What I do mind is when it isn't coming from interviews or first-hand accounts. It doesn't take much of the air of a fictional internal monologue to kill a work of nonfiction for me, it seems. So I am at least grateful to the books for that in making me think through the issue.
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Old 08-16-2018, 11:58 AM   #15
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Oh, I'd agree Hersey's Hiroshima was superior in every way. And I almost nominated it again, but decided to go with something away from the main theatres of the war. And I'm glad I did, even though some of you really didn't like it. And I get that, but maybe we're looking for something a bit different in a history read.

I'll be brutally honest -- I'm never going to read or want to read a thoroughly scholorly tome on war or history. I'm past the age where I find that interesting, and I no longer have to read them for an assignment or school. I enjoy reading history when it makes the history personal and interesting. I find I learn and retain far more from that sort of treatment than I do from something I might have read for a college course. Does that make me shallow? Perhaps, but if so, I accept it and embrace it. At least I try to learn from the mistakes of history. (I'd point out some current examples, but that would take us into P&R territory!)

And OK, I agree completely about Barss. I never quite understood the focus on him, he was the least interesting of the characters chronicled in many ways. But this was not a story about Barss, nor was the book primarily about him no matter how often he intruded. To me, this was a book about how the people of Halifax died and survived the greatest non-nuclear human-caused disaster in history, and how they worked to recover from it. And it was also very much a book about the events that led to that disaster. And while I can certainly see the limitations of the book, ultimately I found it compelling and interesting.

Last edited by CRussel; 08-16-2018 at 12:20 PM.
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