December 6 marks the 100th anniversary of a catastrophic explosion in the harbor adjacent to the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1917, a ship carrying 6 million pounds of high explosives collided with another ship resulting in the largest man-made explosion up to that point. In “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism,” John U. Bacon recounts the history leading up to the disaster, the devastation and response, and the ongoing legacy of the event.
Bacon takes a long-view approach to his topic, recounting the history of Halifax dating back to 1497. He doesn’t belabor the history, but it does occupy nearly a third of the book, often leaving the reader to wonder just what the information has to do with the event at the heart of the story.
In addition to a history lesson, Bacon offers detailed looks into the lives of a variety of people, some directly related to the tragedy and some less so. These passages add some intimacy to a book that could otherwise be overwhelmed by history and the details of ship operations. Still, some of the stories take the reader fairly far afield from the central topic.
“The Great Halifax Explosion” may well appeal to fans of Erik Larson — author of “The Devil in the White City,” “In the Garden of the Beasts,” and “Dead Wake” (which shares some subject matter with Bacon’s book), among others — but Bacon is by no means the storyteller Larson is. Nevertheless, Bacon’s book is well-researched and a worthy reminder of an important event that has not remained at the forefront of our collective consciousness.