Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cannonball Read #29: Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917 by Laura M. MacDonald

I didn't really know much about the Halifax explosion at all before reading this book--all I knew was that every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the people of Boston a giant-ass Christmas tree, which we put up on the Common to ooh and ahh over. This informative little piece of literature definitely will make me think next Christmas as I grumble about the traffic jam caused by the tree-lighting ceremony.

In 1917, Halifax NS was a hub of military activity. Many American and Canadian ships leaving for the war in Europe would make Halifax their final destination before departure. There was a thriving economy and a uniquely protected harbor that seemed safe from both weather and enemy submarines. On December 6, a series of errors would lead to a collision between two ships--one a munitions ship stuffed to the brim with TNT, picric acid, and several other high explosives--and the resulting explosion would destroy Halifax and neighboring Dartmouth, killing more than a thousand people and wounding nearly twice that number.

Laura MacDonald's book is obviously carefully researched, and having grown up in the area she has a special perspective on the character of the local people. She starts out by setting the scene, giving some background on the city and introducing the reader to some of the main players. She goes on to describe the events that led to the explosion and everything that came after, including a fairly extensive section on the relief efforts, particularly those taken on by the people of Massachusetts.

It's interesting to read about how this disaster led to changes in how major cities prepared for situations of this nature, and also how this effected the efforts and training of the (at the time) newly formed Red Cross. Also, the resulting changes in medical science--specifically the idea that pediatric surgery was different and required a different skill set than adult surgery (Dr. Ladd, a preeminent Boston surgeon would return from Halifax and put his efforts into creating the pediatric surgical unit at Children's Hospital, which now has a chair named in his honor.)

In all, Curse of the Narrows is a very detailed and very well-written book about an historical event nearly forgotten. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in turn-of-the-century history.

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