Dr. Afua Cooper may be best known for her work of nonfiction, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal, a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in 2006, but she has also published numerous children’s books.
Like The Hanging of Angélique, which details the trial and torture of an enslaved woman who was accused of setting fire to Old Montreal in 1734, her children’s books pick up on forgotten histories and insist on their memorialization. Cooper’s latest offering focuses on the Black Haligonians caught up in one of the great disasters of Canadian history.
The Halifax Explosion details the catastrophe caused by the collision of two ships in Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917. Illustrated by Rebecca Bender, the team doesn’t shy away from the horrors of history. Bender uses fiery tones of colour and varying font sizes to emphasize the action, all of which are especially effective when paired with archival photographs and statistics, creating a fine balance of story and fact.
Written in the form of a poem, the book sets the scene of the collision between the Imo, a ship carrying relief supplies, including food and munitions, and the Mont-Blanc, which was “loaded with death … to take life on the battlefields of Europe.” The explosion took place in the harbour, but it triggered a tsunami that destroyed more than 1,500 buildings in Halifax and resulted in a massive loss of life. While Cooper states facts: “2,000 dead, 6,000 homeless, 9,000 in various states of woundedness,” the poem shifts swiftly to provide powerful glimpses into the lives of Black Haligonians caught in the disaster. Viola Desmond – who is on Canada’s $10 bill – was one such figure. Desmond was three years old at the time of the explosion and was “thrown from her high chair in her parents’ home, on Gottingen Street.”
Cooper also tells of Clement Ligoure, a doctor from Trinidad who was denied hospital privileges because he was Black, yet amid the catastrophe worked tirelessly for three days for no pay.
Paired with a beautiful portrait of a girl with a ribbon in her hair, the closing pages ask: “Does Halifax remember that Aldora Andrews, Black daughter of Laura and Charles Andrews from Africville, was killed by the explosion on this day?”
The Halifax Explosion urges us to make remembering a conscious act. With this poem, bookended by historical notes, Cooper and Bender guide adults and kids to revisit hidden histories together.