Kids’ books ex­plore Hal­i­fax ex­plo­sion

The Prince George Citizen - - SCIENCE -

A fresh gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren’s books is find­ing the grace notes in Hal­i­fax’s worst mo­ment – a mas­sive ex­plo­sion that lev­elled much of the city 100 years ago but in­spired acts of kind­ness that still res­onate.

The books vary on how closely they ap­proach the wide­spread in­jury and nearly 2,000 deaths that re­sulted from the mas­sive Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion of Dec. 6, 1917, when a French mu­ni­tions ship col­lided with a Bel­gian re­lief ves­sel in the city’s wartime har­bour.

Still, as hur­ri­canes and earth­quakes bat­ter com­mu­ni­ties around the globe, the retelling of Hal­i­fax’s time of trial tend to come to­gether in their de­sire to find hope amidst the floods and rub­ble.

“I didn’t want to dwell on the de­struc­tion, but more on the help that peo­ple gave,” said Mar­i­jke Si­mons, au­thor of The Fly­ing Squir­rel Stow­aways: from Nova Sco­tia to Boston (Nim­bus), one of two pic­ture books for young chil­dren that re­call how Boston res­i­dents rushed north in a train to as­sist.

Other books deal with the ex­pe­ri­ences of a Hal­i­fax news­boy and an or­phaned girl who loses her fam­ily.

The Christ­mas tree given each year as a gift by Hal­i­fax to its south­ern neigh­bour is a key theme for Si­mons as well as for il­lus­tra­tor Belle DeMont and her fa­ther John DeMont in their book The Lit­tle Tree by the Sea: From Hal­i­fax to Boston with love (Nim­bus).

The main char­ac­ter in The Lit­tle Tree by the Sea is an imag­i­nary tree that grows on the slope of Ci­tadel Hill over­look­ing the city, call­ing out in alarm as the Mont Blanc col­lides with the Imo.

Belle DeMont’s fiery de­pic­tion of the blast doesn’t shy away from the ter­ror of the event, though the story shows just a few ex­am­ples of in­jured cit­i­zens.

Ca­nary yel­low streets and pea green city build­ings prior to the event move into more som­bre in­di­gos and deep pur­ple skies and seas af­ter­wards, as the tree’s cry for help drifts across the wa­ter to Boston.

The lit­tle tree even­tu­ally grows tall in the “city by the sea” and of­fers it­self as rec­ol­lec­tion of love.

“It’s find­ing the sweet that coun­ters the bit­ter al­ways, in any sit­u­a­tion. My favourite kids’ books are ones that goes down and up just like life does. You find so­lu­tions. You find sil­ver lin­ings,” Belle said in an in­ter­view.

Si­mons’ book only ref­er­ences the ex­plo­sion in­di­rectly, though it is fo­cused on cop­ing with ad­ver­sity. The artist and teacher has cre­ated fly­ing squir­rels whose enor­mous east­ern spruce be­comes the an­nual gift from Hal­i­fax to its south­ern neigh­bour, forc­ing them to seek a new home.

Si­mons, her hus­band and her grand­daugh­ter trav­elled to the site at Way­cobah, N.S., and watched as Mi’kmaq el­ders per­formed a smudg­ing cer­e­mony in the tree’s hon­our be­fore it was cut and loaded on a truck for its jour­ney into Hal­i­fax and then south­wards.

The au­thor leans over to speak to her grand­daugh­ter as the sa­cred cer­e­mony un­folds, say­ing, “Boston sent us a train­load of nurses and doc­tors. No one for­gets a kind­ness like that.”

She says she was in­spired by how the Bos­to­ni­ans re­sponded with its sup­plies, peo­ple and its knowl­edge of how to re­build.

The artist said in her re­search she also ran across the work of the Mas­sachusetts-Hal­i­fax Health Com­mis­sion, formed as a di­rect out­come of the ex­plo­sion, which pro­duced health re­forms that saved lives for gen­er­a­tions to come.

More de­tailed ac­counts of re­sponse are found in Allison Lawlor’s non-fic­tion book Bro­ken Pieces: An Or­phan of the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion (Nim­bus), aimed at seven- to 10-year-old read­ers.

Lawlor tells the story of 14-year-old Bar­bara Orr, who was walk­ing to a friend’s house when the ex­plo­sion oc­curred. Read­ers learn about res­cue ef­forts and his­tor­i­cal events such as the brav­ery of Vin­cent Cole­man, the rail­way dis­patcher who stayed at his sta­tion to send out a warn­ing.

The writer quotes tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity Fred Rogers, who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will al­ways find peo­ple who are help­ing.”’

Jac­que­line Halsey, whose book Ex­plo­sion Newsie (For­mac) was pub­lished in 2015, will join John and Belle DeMont and Si­mons to dis­cuss how chil­dren re­late to the city’s most no­table mo­ment at a book fes­ti­val in the city this week­end.

Her book told the story of nine-year-old Macky as he de­liv­ers news­pa­pers both be­fore and af­ter the ex­plo­sion. His ef­forts help peo­ple dis­cover their in­jured loved ones.

The for­mer li­brar­ian says chil­dren con­tinue to need sto­ries of dis­as­ter and of re­demp­tion, for this is what life is like.

“My mother grew up in the Blitz, night af­ter night be­ing bombed ... and my daugh­ter was in Fort McMur­ray (Al­berta) and her house was burned in a blink of an eye,” she said in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

“Look­ing back at the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion you see peo­ple rise again. If you love your com­mu­nity and you love each other, you can re­build.”

CP/NA­TIONAL AR­CHIVES OF CANADA

Sur­vivors walk through the af­ter­math of the 1917 Hal­i­fax ship ex­plo­sion. A fresh gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren’s books is re­vis­it­ing the mas­sive ex­plo­sion that lev­elled much of the city 100 years ago.

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