CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 7. . . .October 20, 2017
A Blinding Light.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, April, 2018.
264 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
Halifax Explosion, Halifax, N.S., 1917-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Something's happened. Livy didn't know what, only that it was something terrible. Because, even with her eyes closed, she knew that she was buried. She knew because of the closeness, the silence, the smell of dust and crashes; the bits of glass, china, wood and plaster that she could feel with her fingers. She knew because of the wreckage piled up beside her and beneath her and over her face, chest, arms and feet, especially her feet, because she couldn't move them.
Will was at a loss. One minute he was watching a ship burning in the harbour. The next minute he was on the ground. He remembered seeing, hearing, feeling several things at once - a flash of light, thunder crashing, shuddering, a tornado-like wind - then nothing... He took his time standing up. Looked to the north, to the enormous black cloud looming overhead, and saw to his horror that the entire north end of the city was gone. Flattened. Demolished. "Oh, my god!... Had the Germans attacked? Dropped a bomb? Shelled the city from the harbour?"
A Blinding Light shows how a Canadian tragedy led members of a comfortable, middle class Halifax family to re-examine their relationships and become more open and accepting of others. The tragedy is the Halifax Explosion, which took place on December 6, 1917, when the Mont Blanc, a ship loaded with munitions bound for the Allies in Europe, and the Imo, a Belgian ship carrying relief supplies, struck each other. At the sight of the Mont Blanc on fire, Haligonians rushed down to the harbour, unaware that the ship was a floating bomb. Between 1,600 and 2,000 people were killed instantly, and 9,000 more were injured. The explosion caused a great wave and broke windows within a 100 kilometers radius. Help came from across Canada and from the U.S. as well, especially from Massachusetts, with Boston medical professionals coming and setting up hospitals. As the author notes, Halifax, as an expression of gratitude, has sent Boston a giant tree every Christmas since then.
Lawson's explanation of the Halifax Explosion in her “Author's Note” is informative and clear, and her vivid descriptions of the disaster, as shown in the introductory quotes, are just graphic enough for teen readers. The main characters are complex human beings with serious concerns prior to the explosion. The two point-of-view characters are Olivia (Livy) Schneider, 13, and her brother Will (Wilhelm), 15, who are taunted by their classmates because of their German ancestry.
Most of the story takes place between November 10, 1917, and March 1918, but, in a flashback near the beginning, readers are shown the tragedy that the Schneider family suffered back in May 1917 - the loss of Mr. Schneider, a sea-loving, sociable accountant who downplayed insults about his German ancestry. One fine day, he took the children sailing after the repainting of their family sailboat, the Seevogel, which had been defaced by vandals. The following day, when he goes out alone on rougher seas, he never returns. His damaged sailboat was found, but his body was not recovered.
Livy, who prefers her affable father to her critical, clubwoman mother, hopes that her father will return. The question of what happened to Mr. Schneider provides the suspense that keeps readers reading on, and several incidents will make readers wonder if Mr. Schneider’s alive and will return in the end.
When the police come to the door (to report the discovery of the damaged sailboat), Livy's first thought is that her father has been put in an enemy alien camp. Then she wonders if he sailed to the German prisoner-of-war camp on Melville Island and was caught trying to talk to a prisoner. After the police leave, Mrs. Schneider says to Will, "An accident. That's all you need to tell Olivia or anyone else who asks. An accident." Her incredible calmness and her emphasis on "accident" suggest that her husband may have disappeared for mysterious reasons yet to be revealed.
Early in the novel, as Livy walks on the shore thinking about her father's disappearance, a boy named Lewis follows her, insisting that he has something important to tell her, but she refuses to listen. Later, after the explosion, when Livy visits Lewis in hospital, readers may expect him to reveal the important information, but he doesn't. When Mrs. Schneider is in hospital after the explosion, she speaks of her husband as if he were still alive. Is it a delusion brought on by shock, or does she know more than the book’s readers do? Readers never find out because the plotline about Mr. Schneider's disappearance is overwhelmed by the explosion story. At the end, when the family accepts that he has drowned and looks back fondly on him, readers may feel that they have been manipulated.
The explosion leads Mrs. Schneider and Livy to see the light about their privileged lives and re-evaluate their priorities. Livy, who is sent on an errand to the north end of Halifax in the morning before the explosion, finds herself caught in the rubble with a toddler and a puppy. Her decision to take them home and care for them, which her mother would forbid under normal circumstances, signals the family's change to a more generous attitude. Blinded in one eye by flying glass, Livy's mother undergoes a sea-change in outlook. "I had two good eyes but I never saw beyond my side of a story," she tells Livy. "Now ...I'll try to see two sides of a story with my one good eye."
Readers are shown the devastation and the relief work through Will whose volunteer work as a messenger after the explosion takes him all over Halifax. By having Will testify before the board of inquiry, Lawson shows the scapegoating of Captain Mackey, a Canadian ship's pilot who was guiding the Mont Blanc. (He was later exonerated.)
Lawson presents her story through imagery as well as narration. Glass is one recurrent motif. Near the beginning, Livy's failure to confess about breaking a vase leads to a housemaid's wrongful dismissal. Broken glass from the explosion suggests the fragility of life and the shattering of old-fashioned attitudes about social class. In the end, glass comes into the story in a positive way. Though the ending is satisfactory, I'm still not convinced that Mr. Schneider really drowned.
Ruth Latta lives in Ottawa, ON. Her most recent novel is Grace and the Secret Vault.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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