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Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917

by Laura M. MacDonald

Reading Curse of the Narrows, Laura Mac Donald’s meticulous depiction of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, reminded me of the awe I felt at the magnitude of last year’s tsunami. The explosion, the result of a collision between two ships, the Imo and the Mont Blanc, occurred with as little warning as the tsunami. It decimated the north end of Halifax, damaged many other areas, and killed thousands in what was then the world’s worst ever manmade disaster.

Mac Donald’s project is grander than a mere attempt at comprehending the tragedy and its aftermath. Her work is at once an objective attempt at making comprehensible the accident itself and the relief effort that followed. It also provides an intimate look at the faltered lives of average people, all set against the backdrop of war and an unforgiving winter.

In describing the accident, Mac Donald boldly assigns blame. She essentially finds the Imo’s crew responsible, arguing that the boat was in the wrong lane as it traversed the Narrows, the small passageway that leads from Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. As the Imo attempted to leave the Narrows, and the Mont Blanc, a munitions ship carrying 2,925 tons of explosives, attempted to enter, they crashed, creating a boom heard 225 miles away.

Though this depiction challenges the judge’s decision from the 1917 Wreck Commission (the trial that left some of the crew of the Mont Blanc jailed for a time), Mac Donald persuasively argues that the judge found the Mont Blanc culpable for questionable reasons, not least among them that her captain was a Frenchman.

Mac Donald’s meticulous research and organizational skills also come to the fore as she explores the dizzying post-explosion days and relief efforts. We encounter such local heroes as Dr. George Cox, who performed surgeries for 84 hours straight. We visit the interiors of many hospitals, among them Camp Hill, the relief effort’s ground zero. But when the shock wears off, the troubling transition from disaster relief to rehabilitation arrives, bringing with it the old bonds of social and economic partisanship.

The second half of the book is dedicated to international relief. Help flooded in from many major cities, most importantly from Boston, which sent teams of skilled personnel, including such memorable characters as Captain Ratshesky, the commissioner in charge of the Halifax Relief Expedition. The people of Halifax, to this day, annually send a Christmas tree to Boston in gratitude.

Personal narratives abound, preventing the tragedy from being lost in a sea of mind-numbing data. We follow the extended Duggan family throughout, as they are torn apart (52 of them perished) and reunited. MacDonald also serves up humorous anecdotes, punctuating heartbreak with timely comedic relief.

This is a book for history novices and buffs alike, and for its sense and sensibility, Mac Donald’s effort should be applauded.


Reviewer: Carrie Fiorillo

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada


Price: $36.95

Page Count: 346 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-200787-8

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2005-10

Categories: History