The Town That Died by Michael J Bird

town that diedOn December 6, 1917 the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear bomb detonated in Halifax Harbour, destroying most of the town, killing more than 1900 people and injuring approximately 6000.

In one fiftieth of a second, the French ship vanished in a searing ball of flaming gases. With a thundering, staccato roar the blast waves from the exploding chemicals struck out at Halifax and Dartmouth with the violence of a hundred typhoons. The earth shook and the bed of the harbour split open…

When the sky emptied even then Hell was not yet finished with the stricken towns.

Bird’s book is a compelling mix of minute-by-minute events leading up to and immediately following the explosion, and first and second-hand accounts from survivors. He then wraps up the book with an account of the trial of the captains of the two colliding ships, the Imo  and the  Mont Blanc.

Bird follows a number of explosion survivors through the hours and days after the event, detailing the horrors they witnessed and the struggle to survive.

There is of course the well known and heroic tale of Vincent Coleman, telegraph operator. The immediate and generous response of the United States, with Boston and New York standing out as strong supporters.

And the lesser known tale of William King, presumed dead, his unconscious body taken to the morgue on Chebucto Road – where he awoke two days later. There is young Edith O’Connell, who lost her home and entire family, and 17 year old Lillian Atkins from Yarmouth, who miraculously survived the devastation at the Dominion Textile Company. These and so many more amazing and heartbreaking stories.

And then there are the other stories: the looting and profiteering. The crime. There are always those willing to take advantage of a city in peril.

Few thought Halifax harboured any would-be ghouls or vultures. The disaster showed how many. Men clambered over the bodies of the dead to get beer in the shattered breweries. Men taking advantage of the flight from the city because of the possibility of another explosion went into houses and shops and took whatever their thieving fingers could lay hold of.

With the 95th anniversary of the disaster this year, it seemed time for me to finally read this book in full, start to finish. I have owned it for years, but only ever treated it as a reference book, skimming through for facts or stories. As someone who knows the story well, I was unprepared for the power of Bird’s narrative.

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing; illustrated edition (Jan 1 1995)
ISBN-10: 1551091267
ISBN-13: 978-1551091266

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The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The-Call-of-The-WildBuck is snatched away from his easy life on a California ranch and thrown with little training or ceremony into the brutal life of a sled dog in the Canadian north. Here, he must learn to protect himself from cruel treatment by both men and other dogs, as he slowly ‘remembers’ his  ancestry as a wild beast. It is also here, in this harsh landscape, that he learns to love.

Before I write anything else, I need to say: I did not know this book was about a dog. That makes me sound so stupid. I mean, I knew there was a dog. There is a dog on the cover, even. I guess I just thought it was about a person and their dog. I was confused for the first few pages, then caught on to the fact that Buck was not human.

Aside from reading Black Beauty as a girl (and rereading it, multiple times) I generally don’t do books about animals. They just don’t appeal to me. I could possibly be tempted by a cat book, but even that sounds too cliché. I like my books to be about people, and more often than not, fictional people.

That now out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the book, despite and possibly more-so because of its perspective. This story could not have been told with a human protagonist. This is the other side of the North, and what humans have done there. Buck was there only to work and stay alive. He had no desire for gold or wealth, no longing for the comforts of the south. Setting the story around Buck allows the reader to see the north without human ambition getting in the way.

It was a short book, and an easy read. Still, it was beautiful. Poetic, even. Which was fabulous for a winter weekend where I was mostly confined to my couch with a head-cold.

But now I can’t help but think a little bit more would have been nice. More context. Where did the natives come from, and why did they attack three presumably innocent travellers? Why were the dogs traded so often – was this common practice, or bad luck? Plus numerous other small questions that came up while I was reading. Of course, the point may well have been that Buck did not know the context, and so the reader will not either?

A ‘dog-person’ may have a better perspective on this, but while I found Buck’s transformation fascinating, and hauntingly beautiful, I did not completely buy it. From content estate pet sleeping by the fire to wild dog roaming with the wolves in the span of a few years? Seems unlikely… but damn it makes a great story.

Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; First Edition edition (July 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0486264726
ISBN-13: 978-0486264721