Sunday, May 27, 2007

And we're on to number 11, The Curse of the Narrows, by Laura M. Mac Donald.

This book is about the Halifax explosion of 1917, when two ships, the Mont Blanc and the Imo, collided in Halifax harbour. The didn't collide all that hard, but the problem was that the Mont Blanc was carrying tons of high explosives, all destined for the war effort over in Europe. The Imo hit the Mont Blanc and about half an hour later, the Mont Blanc exploded, devestating much of Halifax in the process. The Mont Blanc became the largest man-made 'bomb' the world had yet seen, and the explosion killed nearly 2000 Haligonians and caused 24 million dollars of damage (in 1917 dollars).

Y'know, while reading this book, I was struck by the fact that, in many ways, I'm pretty ignorant of my own country's history. Oh sure, I know the broad details, the War of 1812, Confederation, the FLQ Crisis, the building of the railroads, the Plains of Abraham, the Winnipeg Strikes, Louis Riel, blah, blah, but there's a lot I don't know too. It really did strike me that, through the dint of my degree in English Literature, I know British history a hell of a lot better than I know my own. And that made me kinda sad.

The only knowledge I had of the Halifax explosion prior to picking up this book was one of those Canada Heritage Moments on the CBC (other Canadians will know what I mean), where they talk about a telegraph operator who manages to telegraph a train and stop it from arriving at Halifax harbour, as he knew the ship was going to explode. The train was stopped, but the telegraph operater died in the explosion. And that was all I knew.

But the Curse of the Narrows goes into frightening, clear detail. I had no idea that Halifax had been so devestated. There wasn't a building in the city left undamaged when the explosion was done. People were blown from their feet to land miles away from where they were. 2000 died and nearly 5000 were injured. Some were blinded, some lost limbs, whole families were wiped out, many children were orphaned. It was a horrendous catastrophy.

Mac Donald attempts to recreate the circumstances leading up to the crash, and she basically comes down on the side that it was the Imo that was in error. But unfortunatey, error compounded on error and the ships collided anyway. The Mont Blanc's crew, tried to warn others, but there was no time, they abandoned the ship, which, with unfortunate accuracy, drifted over to a pier where she stayed, practically in the 'centre' of town, until she blew. Mac Donald follows certain families and people as they try to understand what just happened and make their way home through the devestation, searching for loved ones.

But its the relief effort that she also captures very well, and despite the cataclysm, there is much hope as the rest of Canada and Massechusettes especially, responds to help Halifax and send doctors, clothes, food, temporary shelters, money etc., for a city that has lost very nearly everything.

She also talks about the inquiry the Canadian government had about the explosion, which was really more about assigning blame for the catastrophy, more than in finding out what really happened. The inquiry found that it was the Mont Blanc, the ship carrying the explosives, that was to blame, but this doesn't really seem to be the case, but no one cared, they just wanted to have someone to take their frustrations out on.

But the most poinant thing of all that I got out of this book is the realization that the role Boston played in helping Halifax is still recognized today: Every year, the huge, Christmas Tree that is lit there is shipped down from Halifax. They sent the first tree in 1918 as a thank you for the desperately needed relief they received from Boston. I think its beautiful that the thank you is still recognized and remembered every year.

This was a very, very interesting book and I'm so glad I read it.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Numeral X of the year is Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers: Writers on Comics. Its written by various writers (none of whom I'd actually heard of, now that I think about it), and edited by Sean Howe. I picked it up from G after he'd finished with it (as it is his book) because I was looking for something a little lighter than my current 'heavy' read.

Its bascially exactly what it says it is, various writers writting about their thoughts, feelings on comic books. There's a lot of reminiscing and sharing what comic books mean to them, or meant to them while growing up. Often, they were forbidden by a parent, and so because they were taboo, they became even more sought after.

I found it interesting that the majority of those writing were tried-and-true Marvel zombies as kids, reading nothing but Marvel stories and completely disdaining DC. This was during the seventies, when comics had hit a rather... rough period. I.E., they were pretty bland. Of course, though, as the writers look back in hindsight, they realize that a lot of the Marvel stuff they were reading and loving were actually reprints of Marvel stuff from the sixties, when Marvel was at its zenith of putting out really good, energetic, interesting stories and art. That wasn't happening in the seventies.

I'm not saying DC was doing anything better in the seventies, the renaissance for DC wouldn't really happen again till the 80s with Frank Miller and Alan Moore, but still, as someone who is pretty much a DC-phile, I get a kick out of reading ex-Marvel Zombies admitting that the stuff back then wasn't really that good.

There were quite a few essays on stuff that I've never read, like TinTin, Little Nemo, some various Indie things that I'll probably never read because I find the vast majority of Indie stuff boring, repeatitive and way too emotionally overblown. I like my superheroes, I freely admit that. I never apologize for liking superheroes or superhero comics, and so it is always nice to read about others who are similarily unapologetic for their comic-book reading habits.

I guess I took this book as a big affirmation as to my love of comic books :)