Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review: Curse Of The Narrows

CURSE OF THE NARROWS: by Laura M. Mac Donald, 356 pp., Walker Books, 2005.

In hindsight, the blowing up of Halifax, Nova Scotia, seems to owe a slight debt to cartoonist Chuck Jones. On the morning of December 6, 1917, the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc slipped into Halifax Harbor packed with every implement of a grand Wile E. Coyote routine: gunpowder mix, two old-timey explosives called picric acid and benzol, and 250 tons of TNT. All the ship needed was a large ACME stenciled on its side.

1917 Halifax, as portrayed in Laura M. MacDonald's lively 2005 account of the disaster, was not a friendly town. Prostitutes and sailors swapped syphilis and TB, and goons and drunks roamed the back alleys. It was also a city suffering from war jitters. WWI seemed certain to jump the ocean, either by sabotage or U-Boat, and as the northernmost center of commerce and military activity on the East coast, the city's residents had steeled themselves for a surprise visit by the Kaiser. Munitions traffic was shrugged off as a necessary risk. Even when the Mont-Blanc sideswiped a smaller ship and, burning, careened towards the docks, no one understood the danger. As its lesser munitions ignited on the deck, hundreds of people lined the shore to watch a spectacular fireworks display of green and pink.

At 9:04, the fire reached the TNT and the ship detonated. It was the largest non-nuclear explosion to hit any civilian population in history, sending a mile-high mushroom cloud soaring over a one mile impact crater. A tsunami the size of the Hollywood sign roared through flattened neighborhoods, dragging shrieking survivors back down into the harbor. White hot shrapnel rained down on the rubble, followed by ten minutes of thick black fallout. That night temperatures plunged, a massive blizzard rolled in, and by the next morning the city was twenty degrees below zero and buried under a foot and a half of snow. First responders reported that Halifax had vanished. At least two thousand people died.

Of many calamities to befall the city, the exploding Mont Blanc executed one trick later revived by Al Qaeda in east Africa; get everyone looking in one direction and then shower them in flying glass. History records 5,923 eyes destroyed in the seconds after the explosion. In chapter 5, MacDonald returns to the cartoon world with a description of a woman whose eyeballs have been blown out of their sockets, like an "Itchy and Scratchy" gag. Later, the reader follows the esteemed ocular surgeon George Cox as he tries to bring relief to this netherworld, and in one gruesome passage we join him at a makeshift operating table, thirty hours into his shift, plopping eyeballs into a surgical bucket that eventually overflows.

Large parts of the book are like this. Some of the post-explosion chapters read like George Romero scripts. The author writes of streets strewn with fingers and feet and heads. Rescue workers had to traverse exploding stoves, dangling live wires, burning trees and dogs gone insane. Corpses clutched squalling children, and refugees tried to eat food contaminated with glass chards, oblivious to their own septic face wounds. A newspaper editor, lifting debris, had an anonymous human brain tumble to his feet.

Mac Donald is an engaging historian, unafraid to crawl into people's heads and assign them motives and memories. When faced with the presumably staggering job of sifting through the historical data, she shows a nice instinct for the cinematic. A young man dashes home to find his house eerily deserted. In the kitchen, "a skin of black soot floated on the pitcher of milk, and blood was smeared across the table." Rescuers find two mutilated horse corpses frozen in pose, reminding one of "equestrian statues gone wrong." Of a makeshift basement embalming room, an eyewitness complains that "through the mist loom up the indistinct contours of nude corpses above which ghoul-like figures bend with eerie implements and vessels." It's not hard to picture the trailer for this movie.

Other historians have not done such a good sales job with Halifax. The Titanic remains the sexy disaster of the nineteen-teens, despite the smaller death toll. From our vantage point, the first fifth of the twentieth century is a dim sinkhole. WWI remains in memory; the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, twice as fatal as the Great War, does not. My hardbound copy of The New York Times Page One starts the 20th century in 1920. President McKinley's shooting and slow death, occurring exactly a century before 9/11, have been relegated to the old timey museum. The implied irrelevance for our era is hard to face. A hundred years from now, will this decade's travails - all our wars and flooded cities and exploding skyscrapers - rank as even a footnote in anyone's anthology?