Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia was a busy port in WW1, a staging area for convoys of ships moving across the Atlantic. Trains arrived daily with troops and supplies for the war effort.
On the morning of 6 December 1917, the Mont Blanc (a French cargo ship) collided with the Imo (a Norwegian supply vessel) in the Narrows of the harbour. Haligonians watched the fire from the shore, not realizing that the Mont Blanc was loaded with munitions. The explosion and resulting shockwave killed almost 2000 people, injured over 9000, destroyed 1500 buildings and left over 12000 buildings uninhabitable.
The Halifax Explosion was the largest human-made explosion before the atomic bombs were detonated in 1945.
My day job recently took me to Halifax. Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising came along. The novel is set in Halifax in the days before and after the Halifax Explosion. You can read the novel on several different levels.
Halifax, December 1917. Penelope Wain is longing for her love, who is also her cousin, Neil Macrae. Neil is assumed to be dead. Killed in the war two years ago under a cloud of suspicion for failure to follow orders. The orders of his commanding officer … his uncle … Penelope’s father, Geoffrey Wain. Turns out Neil is not dead. He has just snuck back to Halifax to find the one man who can clear his name.
Penny isn’t just moping around. She works at the shipyard. Just sold the British admiralty on the plans for a warship she designed. Nobody can believe it. A girl! Oh, turns out it was Neil’s idea. “All she had done had been to work out his principles in detail, to check figures of construction cost and the weights of various alloys, to estimate the ratio of horsepower to tonnage, and merge such pedestrian details with her own knowledge of construction and with Neil’s general plan.” (p 25) (Sounds like quite a lot to me.)
And what is Geoffrey up to? Profiting from the war, intimating that Neil’s perceived misdemeanors are the barrier to a more lucrative military staff position, scowling about the inferiority of his country. All in a pro-Empire way.
The City as a Character
Halifax itself is a character in the novel. The geography and atmosphere of the city play a critical role.
… as long as there were wars and she remained the terminus of the longest railway in the world, her back to the continent and her face to the Old Country, she would lie here in all weathers unchangeably the same, and her bells would ring in the darkness. (p 42)
The book is a good companion for a visit to the city.
The Big Bang
Three forces were simultaneously created by the energy of the exploding ship, an earthquake, an air-concussion, and a tidal wave. These forces rushed away from the Narrows with a velocity varying in accordance with the nature of the medium in which they worked. It took only a few seconds for the earthquake to spend itself and three minutes for the air-expansions to slow down to a gale. The tidal wave travelled for hours before the last traces of it were swallowed in the open Atlantic. (p 196)
This is the start of two and a half pages describing the immediate devastation of the city from 9:05 to 9:10 am. Read it. Hard to imagine another account as lyrical as MacLennan’s.
The Classical Connection
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. (p 256, from Virgil, The Aeneid)
Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this. (Robert Fagles translation)
The heroine is Penelope. The hero has left home, everyone think he’s dead. He loses his memory. He must regain it and fight seemingly unsurmountable obstacles before he can return. He hides his identity until the conditions are right to take his place again. Echoes of The Odyssey. MacLennan shows off his background as a classics scholar.
The Allegorical Fable
Chances are you’re reading a fable when someone’s quick response to a catastrophe is to philosophize at length about the future of Canada. Ultimately, Barometer Rising is an allegory of Canada turning away from its British colonial connections and building the consciousness of a new nation. References throughout the novel slap you up the side of the head. The explosion literally blows the old order to smithereens. Coincidences pile up to support the myth-making. (Of all the places Neil could go, he just happens to enter the building where he finds Geoffrey’s body.)
Barometer Rising was first published in 1941, as the world was enmeshed in another war. MacLennan’s ideas reflect a view of the time, that Canada would bridge the divide between the UK (old Empire) and the US (new power). Lots of CanLit ink has been spilt to analyse this more than I will here.
Many readers see Neil as the embodiment of the new Canada. I like to think that he and Penny together bring equally important qualities to the new vision.
You can read more about the Halifax Explosion here and here.