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The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
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April 2019: History > The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon - 5 stars

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message 1: by Joy D (last edited Apr 11, 2019 02:09PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy D | 3186 comments The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon - 5 stars

PBT Comments: I found this book a fascinating non-fiction historical account of a disastrous event that should be more widely known than it is! The old photos of Halifax were an added bonus.

Outstanding non-fiction about a disastrous explosion in Halifax in 1917. On December 6, 1917, the freighter Mont-Blanc arrived in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, laden with six million pounds of explosives destined for the trenches of the Great War in France. The Mont-Blanc collided with the Imo, resulting in a fire, which eventually caused the explosives to detonate, devastating the surrounding area. It was, at the time, the most powerful blast ever unleashed, until eclipsed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. John U. Bacon tells the story of how this disaster occurred and what happened in its aftermath. It is a story of almost unbelievable heroism and people rising to the occasion by altruistically helping each other through the tragedy.

The author employs several techniques which bring the story to life. First, he follows the lives of several people who were impacted by the event. I cared about these people and hoped they made it through the blast. Second, he tells the history of United States-Canadian relations, which have not always been as cordial as they are now. Third, he outlines an almost a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the circumstances leading to the explosion. Taken together, they make for riveting reading.

Once he lays the foundation for the events that would cause the explosion, Bacon turns to a mini-biography of Joseph Barrs, who volunteered for the Canadian army in World War I. He was injured severely in battle and spent six months in a body cast, returning to the Halifax area struggling to walk and suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He feels he has lost his direction in life, and the way in which he rediscovers a sense of purpose is directly related to the actions taken in response to the Halifax explosion. I found this a very powerful way to tell the story of how the explosion connects to what was happening with the Great War overseas and felt invested in his plight.

The author paints a vivid picture of what was occurring in the city at the time, a seemingly ordinary day, with men working, children on their way to school, families eating breakfast. People were curious about the burning ship and were coming down to the pier to watch, unaware of its dangerous cargo. The author tells many individual stories of what happened to the people and how the community responded, eventually receiving assistance from many places, including Boston, where they had an emergency preparedness plan already established. Just when you think circumstances can’t get much worse for the people of Halifax, they do. In the wake of the explosion, a massive tsunami is generated. The next day, as people were attempting to recover survivors, the city is hit with the worst blizzard in a decade.

This story deserves to be more well-known than it is, and I very much enjoyed learning about it. My only quibbles with the book, and they are minor, is that the author sometimes includes superfluous or repetitive information and I would have liked to hear more about what the captain and crew faced afterward. Overall, I found this book fascinating and highly recommend it to anyone interested in World War I, the history of man-made disasters, or stories of tragic events that bring out the best of human nature.

Link to My GR Review

Joanne (joabroda1) | 7232 comments I read this last year and also gave it 5 stars. I found the beginning a little slow, but stayed with it and glad that I did. I spent a lot of time wondering why I never knew about this-you are spot on when you say it deserves more attention. Very nice review of a great book!

Joy D | 3186 comments Thanks, Joanne! Glad you enjoyed it too

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