21 August 2012

Review: Blizzard of Glass by Sally M. Walker

Did you know that one of the largest man-made explosions ever recorded took place in Halifax on December 6, 1917? I hadn't known either until I read Sally M. Walker's absorbing account of the disaster. The Blizzard of Glass is the true story of that fateful day, and although written for middle readers, this is a book for everyone.

The Halifax explosion was such an enormous event with such far-reaching effects that it seems almost impossible to get a handle on the story. Walker solved that problem by concentrating on just a few families, who lived in different areas of Halifax and across the harbor in Dartmouth.

Starting with a brief history of the towns along the waterfront, Walker sets the stage for what is to come. Then she takes us almost minute by minute through the morning routine of her chosen families on that December 6. Young children are getting ready for school, one is sick in bed, and another is running along to the store to buy some barley. Fathers head off for work, and mothers are in their kitchens or standing at the doorway watching the schoolchildren.

Meanwhile in the harbor, two ships, the SS Imo, which was nearly empty, and the SS Mont-Blanc, which was packed to the gills with explosives destined for the Allies fighting World War I, were inexplicably heading on a collision course. Although the Mont-Blanc did not explode immediately, it did catch on fire—a fire that could not be put out. By the time the crew abandoned ship, the fate of the harbor towns was sealed.

At 9:05 on December 6, 1917, the entire shipload of explosives went off. Here are just a couple of facts to give you a sense of the force:

  • The internal temperature of the explosion was about 9,032°F.
  • The initial speed of the shock way was about 5,000 feet/second.
  • The ground shook in a town about 250 miles away.
  • In the aftermath there was tsunami that crested at between 39 and 45 feet.
In the short time between the initial fire and the explosion, people went to their windows or raced down to the water front to see what was happening. Those people were totally defenseless against the power of the explosion.

Walker doesn't stop with the destruction of the town's factories, houses, piers, schools, and churches. Instead, she returns us to the families we met that morning, and reconstructs their fate: many died, and almost all were injured. Some were heroes, and some were just lucky. For the townspeople and for us, the number of fatalities and degree of mental anguish are almost incomprehensible.

One of things that was particularly heartbreaking was the number of babies who had been separated from their families. With no way to know their names, nurses had to care for them until or if a relative was able to identify an infant and take him or her home. Unclaimed babies were adopted or grew up in an orphanage. Walker doesn't sugar-coat the heartbreak and horror for her young audience, but neither does she sensationalize the events. She is respectful yet tells us the entire story, including the gruesome task of identifying the almost 2,000 bodies.

The title of the book, Blizzard of Glass, comes from the fact that every single piece of glass in Halifax and Dartmouth was shattered into minute fragments. Most of the injuries and many deaths were caused by that glass. The glass shards also meant that no food was safe to eat, and the survivors had to wait for outside supplies. Relief came from as far away as Boston and as close as the neighboring towns. But Halifax in winter is a rough place, and on December 7, even while rescuers were still looking for survivors, a full-force blizzard of snow hit the town.

Few people had shelter, as most houses were flatten or deemed unsafe. And those that withstood the blast had no windows and were badly damaged. Doctors and nurses were desperately needed, but the trains were stopped on the tracks because of the snow.

That the town survived and even thrived after those of days of hell, is a miracle in itself. Walker describes the decades-long process of rebuilding and resettling the harbor. She tells us what happened to the survivors of the families we met, and we learn of the yearly remembrance ceremony that takes place in Halifax.

The book is amply illustrated by maps, family trees, and historical photographs of the town and people as well as photos of the artifacts stored in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The photos alone are moving and worth studying.

I can't say enough good things about Sally Walker's Blizzard of Glass.

I had the great good luck to receive a copy of the unabridged audiobook (Listening Library, 2 hr, 51 min), read by Paul Michael. To be honest, I was unsure of Michael's narration for the first couple of chapters. I sensed a lack of excitement during the buildup of the disaster. But soon I understood his take on this true-life moment of devastation. Michael's respectful reading was just the right way to approach the story of the Halifax explosion. By going light on the dramatics, he allowed the emotional impact of the event to come through and gave me time to absorb the enormity of the situation.

The only problem with the audiobook is that listeners will miss out on the photos and maps. I suggest you do what I did: Have a copy of the book to flip through while you let Paul Michael do the reading. Again, do not be put off by the middle grade rating of Blizzard of Glass; this is book for all ages.

Note on the images:
As far as I can tell and according to Wikimedia, the two images included in this post are in the public domain. Click the images to enlarge them.

Buy Blizzard of Glass at Powell's, at an Indie, at Book Depository, or at a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Macmillan / Henry Holt, 2011 (print) (audiobook: Listening Library, 2012)
ISBN-13: 9780805089455
Source: Bought (print); review (audio) (see review policy)
Rating: A
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Daryl 8/21/12, 8:24 AM  

putting in the TBR list because books like this are wonderful glimpses into the past...

bermudaonion 8/21/12, 9:21 AM  

Wow, that must have been some explosion to destroy all that glass! This sounds like a fascinating book!

rhapsodyinbooks 8/21/12, 9:35 AM  

Wow, I didn't know about this either! And I can't *believe* someone hasn't made a "disaster movie" out of this story!

Barbara 8/21/12, 10:10 AM  

I learned about this tragedy on our last trip to Nova Scotia many years ago. In fact, I bought a little book about it in a Halifax bookstore, but can't seem to find it right now. This book sounds really good.

Jenn's Bookshelves 8/21/12, 10:13 AM  

I'm familiar with this incident, only because of husband's obsession with the History Channel! I wasn't aware of the book, however. Adding it to my "must read" list!

Beth Hoffman 8/21/12, 11:13 AM  

Terrific review. This book is right up my alley, and I know my husband will want to read it too!

Beth(bookaholicmom) 8/21/12, 11:40 AM  

I have not heard of this disaster. I love reading these types of books. I'll have to keep an eye out for this book!

Carole 8/21/12, 3:57 PM  

Really interesting book. would you like to link it in to Books You Loved?

Have a great week. See you for Weekend Cooking!

Zibilee 8/21/12, 4:38 PM  

This is an incident that I knew nothing about, and your review was so comprehensive and thoughtful that now I feel that I have a good understanding of just what happened that fateful day. I need to read this book. I imagine that there is a lot here to think about and discuss, and though it is targeted at middle school readers, I think I would get on with this book just perfectly. Excellent review and photographs today!

Anonymous,  8/21/12, 5:42 PM  

Wow, I'd never heard of this disaster, either. It kind of reminds me of the Boston Molasses Disaster...one of those weird things that causes so much damage and heartbreak.

caite 8/21/12, 6:43 PM  

I DID know about this, since I have been to Halifax a few times. Sounds fascinating.

Karen White 8/22/12, 9:54 AM  

Of course I'm not going to remember them, but I've actually read two novels that were set around this disaster. The details were chilling. The structure of this work sounds wonderful - following specific families.
On another note, I am disappointed that a male reader was chosen for this book, as it was written by a woman. Does it seem like there was a reason for that?

Melissa Wiebe 8/24/12, 2:01 AM  

Interesting the train dispatcher for the Halifax rail station managed to stop a train coming into Halifax.

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