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Historical Fiction of the Halifax Explosion

On the anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, it seems only fitting that we dedicate our post to remembering an event that shaped and changed the city that we live in.

There are numerous factual accounts of the Halifax Explosion – including Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and The Road to Recovery by Janet Kitz, and the recent Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion, 1917 by Laura M. Mac Donald – but it is often through historical fiction that writers and readers are able to experience both the facts of an event and the emotions of the people involved.
As readers we know that with historical fiction sometimes authors stray from the established facts of an event, but that sometimes such fictional accounts are a way for modern readers to understand the human experience of an event in a way straight histories sometimes don’t allow.

Below are a number of novels who have featured the Halifax Explosion in their plots – sometimes at the centre, and other

times in the background.
Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan: probably the most famous of the Halifax Explosion novels, MacLennan’s is part romance, part suspense novel and a detailed account of the events of Dec 6, 1917. You might have read it in high school, but it is a novel well worth a revisit. It was the first novel by an author who went on to be a five time winner of the Governor General’s Award.

Robert MacNeil’s Burden of Desire uses the Halifax Explosion as a background to a story that is ultimately a romance. Whether you read it for the complications of love in a conservative early 20th century Halifax or for his haunting descriptions of the death and destruction that the explosion wreaked on the city – it makes for a compelling story.

Disaster and romance must seem to go hand in hand to those in the writing game, as one of the first novels of the Halifax Explosion was also a romance. A Romance of the Halifax Disaster by Lt. Col. F. McKelvey Ball, originally published in 1918, was a story created by a soldier who himself assisted in the rescue efforts after the explosion. In addition to the story, it includes photographs of the aftermath of the disaster alongside the text. The book was republished in 1998.

Unsurprisingly, local Nova Scotia novelists have chosen to retell the story of the Halifax Explosion in their works.
Recently, Halifax author John Tattrie released Black Snow: a Story of Love and Destruction, which follows the fictional character Tommy Joyce as he searches for his wife in the aftermath of the explosion.
Carol Bruneau’s 2007 book Glass Voices, features the Halifax Explosion, but is not exclusively about it. The book spans decades, but the story’s main characters are irreversibly changed by the tragedy of the 1917 explosion.

Ami MacKay’s 2006 novel about midwives in in early 20th century Nova Scotia, The Birth House, includes a section where her lead character Dora Rare assists pregnant women in the damaged city after the explosion.
More personally, Thomas Raddall has a short story called “A Winter’s Tale” which appeared in his collection The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek and has been said to be based on the author’s own experiences the morning of the Explosion.
Canadian authors are not the only ones to have included references to the Halifax Explosion in their works. American author Anita Shreve’s 2005 novel A Wedding in December includes a subplot of a surgeon’s experiences during the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. Another American author, John Irving, includes a small section in his long novel Until I Find You that talks about the Halifax Explosion, though from the perspective of a modern character who visits Halifax to explore the possibility of playing a role in a film about the event.

If you want to more about the history of the Halifax Explosion and the resources on the explosion in the Halifax Public Libraries collections, visit our Halifax Explosion Resource List.

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