________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2006


No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917. (Dear Canada).

Julie Lawson.
Markham, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2006.
249 pp., cloth, $14.99.
ISBN 0-439-96930-1.

Subject Heading:
Halifax Explosion, Halifax, N.S., 1917-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

*** /4


I'm in a hospital, in a corridor, sitting on the floor.

What happened? How did I get here?

The corridor is jammed with people. Some covered with blood and black grime. Some with faces that don't look like faces. Others rushing around, too busy to answer questions.

Someone is screaming but most of the people are quiet.

There's blood all over the floor. The smell...

How did I get here? I was outside with Haggarty. But what happened after that? Did I walk here? Did someone carry me? Who?

I remember seeing bodies. Bodies everywhere...and parts of bodies. Crushed and burned and mangled. And the sounds of shrieking and sobbing and moaning...

All I can remember thinking is, the Germans must have come. This must be No Man's Land.

People keep going past down the corridor. They're crying, calling out names, looking for friends or relatives.

Where's Dad? Why doesn't he come for me?


For her twelfth birthday, Charlotte Blackburn receives an extra-special present from her older brother Luke: a blank book in which she can record all of her innermost thoughts and feelings without fear of any repercussions. And Luke also asks her to record all of the happenings of daily life on the homefront. In exchange, he will keep a similar diary in which he will write about life in the trenches, for Luke is far away overseas, fighting in the terrible Great War against the Germans. Charlotte and the entire Blackburn family miss Luke fiercely and yearn for his safe return, and so Charlotte writes in her diary diligently, just as he instructed her to. She writes about school and her mean teacher, Mr. Barker. She writes about her friends, Muriel and Eva, and how things keep growing more difficult each day for Eva and her family because of the fact that her father is from Germany. And she writes about knitting socks for the soldiers, going on the milk run with Haggarty, and quarreling with her older sister Ruth. And then one morning in December, two ships collide in the Halifax Harbour and Charlotte's life, and the lives of thousands of others, will never be the same again.

     Charlotte awakes later that day and slowly recollects what had happened: the explosion, the destruction, so very many people dead and so many others badly wounded. Her own parents, her sisters, everyone but she and Duncan, dead. Her home, her community: in utter ruins. Still clinging to her diary, Charlotte gradually recalls therein the details of that terrible day. She writes for Luke so he will know about the No Man's Land that she lived through in her own little corner of the world. And slowly, she and Duncan begin the long process of putting that horror-filled day behind them.

     This latest saga in the “Dear Canada” series of historical fiction titles brings this particular tragedy into sharp, clear focus. Young readers have the chance to get to know the Blackburn family, to relate to the petty jealousies, the daily bickering as well as the warm, familial bonds - all through the eyes of young Charlotte. Author Julie Lawson lures readers into the rhythm of daily life in Halifax at that time. This, of course, makes the impact of the explosion feel even greater when it shatters that rhythm. Even readers who have studied the Halifax Explosion in school will find this fictional account to be absorbing, informative and revelatory. Because Charlotte's journal entries continue well beyond that fateful day, readers are given occasion to think about how life resumed in the weeks and months following the disaster, and how those affected had to pick up and carry on. And meanwhile, the war in Europe was raging on, wreaking its own havoc on lives all over the world.

     As is the goal of this series, No Safe Harbour brings a very real historical event startlingly to life for today's young readers. Many girls identify with books that are written in a diary format, and they will find much to think about in this book. Although the character of Charlotte all too frequently sounds too old for her years, she is nonetheless an engaging character, a "Diana" who displays flashes of "Anneness" (much to her own surprise!) as she eventually begins to live up to the name of Charlotte the Fearless, her Intrepidous Twins counterpart.

     Charlotte’s tale of survival in the face of monumental loss helps to put a human face on this well-documented tragedy and puts it all in a wider context for the sake of modern readers. The photos and historical note at the back of the book provide further information for those who are interested, and the photos help readers to visualize the results of this catastrophic event. It is an interesting story in its own right, one with strong potential for classroom use given how effectively it portrays the disaster. A worthy addition to any library collection.


Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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