We All Expected to Die: Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918–1919 by Anne Budgell
ISER Books, 392 pages, $26.95
One of the saddest places I’ve ever seen is Hebron, an abandoned coastal settlement in northern Labrador. All that is visible today is a long and decaying building, its wooden walls silvered and shrunken by harsh Atlantic winds, and the overgrown remnants of sod houses in the scrubby land around it. These are the ghostly remains of a once-buoyant community and trading post that was established among the Inuit by Moravian missionaries from Germany late in the eighteenth century and that had a population of over two hundred by 1918.
But that fall, the Moravian supply ship Harmony arrived from St. John’s with a sailor aboard suffering from Spanish influenza. Within a month, the Inuit inhabitants of Hebron and the neighbouring Moravian community of Okak were almost completely wiped out.
Further south on the Labrador coast, infected sailors aboard the freight ship Sagona spread the flu into fishing communities in the Sandwich Bay area. The death toll amongst these settlers was alarming, but nothing close to the
near obliteration of the Inuit converts in Hebron and Okak. The Newfoundland government in St. John’s showed little concern about any of these appalling public-health disasters along the Labrador coast. A reporter quoted a government minister shrugging, “Let ’em die.”
Newfoundland journalist Anne Budgell has mined diaries, letters, official correspondence, and newspapers in her extraordinary account of how — and why — the flu epidemic was more deadly in remote Labrador than anywhere else on the globe. Survivors described with chilling precision how strong men dropped dead while stoking the stove, how dogs feasted on the rotting corpses, and how children were left orphaned and starving. In most of the affected communities there were too few adults left to dig graves in the frozen ground; some corpses were tipped through holes chipped into thick sea ice.
We All Expected to Die has elements of the kind of dystopic end-of-time fiction that is fashionable today — but the events in Labrador a century ago involved real people. Their ghosts surround you in Hebron. Budgell’s careful reconstruction of the impact of a pandemic is an impressive achievement. — Charlotte Gray
From Rinks to Regiments: Hockey Hall-of-Famers and the Great War by Alan Livingstone MacLeod Heritage House Publishing,
192 pages, $19.95 For a goalie, “Peerless” Percy LeSueur could handle a puck with the best of them. But he couldn’t have predicted that his skill with a twig would land him a new gig, teaching the deadly art of bayonet warfare.
LeSueur, who protected the twine for the Ottawa Senators in the early twentieth century, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force late in 1916. For a short time he played in a special battalion for hockey players that was created as a recruiting tool to boost enlistment during the First World War.
The then-thirty-four-year-old was fortunate — he never saw action and instead worked as a trainer of new recruits. But many of his skating compatriots weren’t so fortunate. Some were wounded; others were killed. The First World War left an entire generation scarred in some way or another. In the new book From Rinks to
Regiments, author Alan Livingstone MacLeod recounts the tales of men like LeSueur who served their country between 1914 and 1918. MacLeod’s writing is lively and brisk, and the book features plenty of historical hockey photos that fuel our nostalgia for “the good ol’ hockey game.” It’s a great gift for hockey fans who appreciate the storied history of a game that is, ironically, known by the nickname “war on ice.” — Mark Collin Reid