The Halifax Explosion: Barometer Rising & Tides of Honour

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Barometer Rising

Tides of Honour

It’s been 100 years since the Halifax Explosion (December 6th) and remains Canada’s worst ever man-made disaster. This was a piece of Canadian history sorely lacking in any of my history lessons. Severely, as in I never learned a thing about it! There are a number of fiction, and non-fiction books written about this. I’ve read these two fiction ones: Barometer Rising and Tides of Honour. I do now also own Dazzle Patterns, purchased after reading Kerry Clare’s review here.  I can also access Glass Voices by Carol Bruneau. My original knowledge stems from Naomi at Consumed by Ink for her Halifax Explosion reading project and from the added review by Kerry. (See how amazing book people are?)

I recently subscribed to Atlantic Books Today and their Fall/Winter edition was devoted to the Halifax Explosion: Halifax Wrecked, Fiction Brings Halifax Explosion to Heart, and The Significance of Disaster 100 Years On.

Halifax Archives has personal narratives here and from the CBC:  CBC,  “Turmoil on the Homefront”.

I was comparing and contrasting the two books at all times since I was reading them concurrently. (I’m not sure that’s advised, there were times I was confusing some of the stories, so I think one at a time may be a better plan.)

In Barometer Rising, Penny is a main character. So you really can’t go wrong there! 😉 Both MacLennan and Graham write about the plight of women, the fight for women’s right to vote, etc., with maybe MacLennan edging out Graham on this aspect of their stories. Graham does talk more about the suffragists and their protests, and about Danny’s struggles with his wife earning (more) money for her art, but MacLennan offers a clearer opinion in his writing throughout:

“She dropped the pencil with a clatter and leaned back, stretching her arms. She was tired and knew she should stop, but this was a chronic state with her now that a further speed-up in war work was being pressed, and she welcomed that lassitude as an anodyne to thought. To be a woman and work at a profession pre-eminently masculine meant that she must be more than good. She had to be better than her male colleagues; she had to work longer hours and be doubly careful of all that she did, for a mistake would ruin her. It had taken a war to open such a job to her in the first place, but she was undeceived as to how superior she must be to continue to keep it.” 

(About Penny) “That young woman’s too sure of herself,” Alfred said finally. Mary broke out impatiently, “Don’t be such an old fool! After what she’s done all you can think of is to complain because she knows her own mind.” 

Both plainly focus on WWI and the return of soldiers to Halifax with shiploads of soldiers and sailors, and ships carrying war supplies into Halifax. Both are centered more on the return from the war – Neil Macrae and Angus Murray for Barometer and Danny Baker in Tides of Honour, this is more the centerpieces of their stories, and each take their time getting to the actual day of the explosion. It is just that Tides of Honour has a more tender and heartfelt story over the more politically related stance in Barometer Rising?

Barometer does an exceptional job of situating Halifax as a main character and has a vivid portrait of the explosion and aftermath. MacLennan creates a vivid picture more of the wreckage of Halifax.

“The pressure of the exploding chemicals smashed against the town with the rigidity and force of driving steel. Solid and unbreathable, the forced wall of air struck against Fort Neeham and Richmond Bluff and shaved them clean, smashed with one gigantic blow the North End of Halifax and destroyed it, telescoping houses or lifting them from their foundations, snapping trees and lamposts, and twisting iron rails into writhing, metal snakes; breaking buildings and sweeping the fragments of their wreckage for hundreds of yards in its course. It advanced two miles southward, shattering every flimsy house in its path, and within thirty seconds encountered the long, shield-like slope of the Citadel which rose before it.” 

Whereas, Graham paints a vivid picture of the wreckage of the people.

“Mother?” a soft voice whimpered. Danny turned and saw a young girl, standing completely naked, her face and body caked with dust. She couldn’t have been more than six years old, with shoulder-length hair of an indeterminate colour. Her eyes were gone, blown clean out of her skull. Blood drew black lines from her eye sockets in a cruel imitation of a mime. “I can’t see.” “I’m here,” Danny said, coming toward her. He touched her shoulder, and she grabbed on to him, shaking. But the trembling grew weaker by the moment.”

“Dead and dying were everywhere, their bodies tangled, collapsed, broken in any number of horrible ways.”

“The streets of northern Halifax looked like a flattened battlefield, still smoking, the ripped roots of treets sticking obscenely into the sky. Expect on the battlefield, blinded children didn’t run naked in the winter streets. Women didn’t rush past carrying decapitated babies.”

Both talk of the immediate action the people of Halifax went into for the rescue and recovery, helping the wounded, finding the dead, and opening makeshift hospitals.

(Tides of Honour) “Soldiers and sailors began to arrive, building temporary shelters as quickly as possible so people could get out of the lethal cold. Day by day the wounded began walking again, often with patched faces and bodies, trying to pull together what they could of their lives.” 

(Barometer Rising) “It took over half an hour to make three miles, for they were stopped on every block by people carrying wounded…They began to meet ambulances and private cars running fast to the north, and once a military car hurried by with a soldier in the back shouting directions through a mega-phone. When they finally reached the hospital they found it lined with trucks, private cars, garbage carts, bread wagons, slovens and at rare intervals, an ambulance. A chain of volunteers lifted the wounded out of these vehicles onto stretchers and doors and anything flat that would hold their weight.”

Tides of Honour edged out Barometer Rising in likeability for me however, for the storyline captured my attention and heart, more than MacLennan was able to do. While the characters in Barometer Rising were all strong, there was just something a little more appealing and engrossing to the characters in Tides of Honour. I was originally listening to Tides of Honour in audio, and while the narrator is a solid storyteller (I will admit to tearing up when listening to Danny’s visit with his best friend’s mother, returning his personal items and talking of the magnificent loss. Danny has also lost a leg in the war),  it was when he read the female characters where my irritation caused me to reach for the paper version to finish. He tramps into drag-queen territory and nothing is more irritating to my ears than listening to comically high falsetto female voices. Stop that. Please, just stop doing that to your voice!

Both Barometer Rising and Tides of Honour were wonderful reads and Barometer was something I had sitting on my shelf long before I understood it dealt with the Explosion, and with thanks to Genevieve Graham, I was able to listen to Tides of Honour – such excellent timing to have access to this book! ( I borrowed the ebook from the library to finish reading it that way.)

I look forward to continuing my reading of the Halifax Explosion, certainly with Dazzle Patterns, since I now own it so it’s available anytime I want to start reading it, which should be soon! I don’t know if it will be one I read before the end of this year’s anniversary, but I do intend on reading it sooner than later.