Black Snow: the latest Halifax explosion romance

After reading the title, you’re probably thinking… there’s more than one Halifax Explosion Romance?  Well yes!  My Masters research focused on this narrow aspect of Atlantic Canadian literature—more specifically, Halifax literature.  Halifax likes to write about itself.

There’s actually quite a handful of romances that take on the Halifax Explosion as a setting, sometimes as a theme, sometimes supposedly as a character (as in Black Snow.)  It’s always a first novel of someone who resides in the city, or someone who has heard the stories from a relative through the years.  Write what you know, in other words.

There’s been quite a few.  They started in 1918 when Frank McKelvey Bell actually published something called (no lie) A Romance of the Halifax Disaster. It’s a few chapters of a very Edwardian romance that basically applauds the disaster for bringing together two star-crossed lovers.  Aww.  The bizarre part is that the book includes non fiction material and lots of pictures.  It’s all unfortunate because Bell set up the medical relief after the explosion and his bio would’ve proved fascinating.  Instead we have a brief trite romance.  Thanks for playing.

And they continue.  Hugh MacLennan’s Barometre Rising is one of the more famous books on the explosion, published during the Second World War period.  It’s not your traditional romance (and by no means as blatant as Bell’s melodrama which would have made a fitting  Hallmark movie today) but it’s a good solid Canadian novel with a heapin’ helpin’ of romance thrown in for good measure.

Newshound Robert MacNeil penned Burden of Desire, which was released in the early 1990s.  This truly took the romance theme and ran with it, even though politics and religion were not forgotten.  A solid work (quite a tome actually) that dances through many themes of the period with a lot of panache.

Following MacNeil’s novel, the next true example of the Halifax Explosion Romance was actually a CBC movie.  Shattered City wasn’t quite a Hallmark piece, but the Canadian variety that is very similar.  You know the kind.  Its main attraction was that its modest budget managed to re-create Halifax circa 1917 with a few awesome props and computer generated effects.

The main difference between the melodrama and Bell’s 1918 work is that a fairly key family member died, one was blinded, and they didn’t actually outright say thank goodness the Halifax explosion happened or we wouldn’t have been united!  With its historical… liberties, we shall say, it was panned by historians.  Nice try, but definitely a foul ball.

The latest romance, just on store shelves now, is called Black Snow.  A subtitle is: A story of love and destruction.  Written by a journalist who used to work for the Chronicle Herald.  Of course I had to pick it up ASAP so I could see where it fit into the legacy.

For one, I couldn’t put it down.  Quite frankly, I can’t put anything regarding this moment of time down.  And the book is well written, with deft prose and rather compelling characters.

In interviews, I’ve read that Jon Tattrie was aiming to make the explosion a central character.  And in that attempt, he wanted to avoid sanitizing the disaster itself by presenting it in stark relief.  In other words, in all its blood and guts.  (Let’s just say it was not a pretty disaster, if there is such a thing.)  Now that in itself is a bold statement, because most of the reports I’ve read have tried to paint the waterfront that day.  It’s a picture that’s really painted in black and red.

Tattrie does do a good job of providing us with the scene.  The pieces of humanity on the waterfront.  The exodus of the bleeding towards the downtown core for medical treatment and salvation.  I’m not convinced it’s a truly authentic portrayal, because all of us who have written on the explosion have seen the same pictures, read the same accounts… again there’s really nothing that arrests you in your tracks if you’ve actually read on the disaster itself.

Having said that, it’s still quite a competent first novel.  Not necessarily for the scenes of the explosion, but for the chapters where we’re in the muddy trenches with the main character.  In fact, I think the battlefields eclipse the Halifax scenes ten fold.  More poignantly, the character survives between the Canadian and German trenches with his dead buddy for a week.  And the mental injuries from this time, of course, trail Tommy Joyce back to Halifax in time for the explosion.

Now for the romance.  Tommy marries his dead brother’s wife.  After cheating on her.  Lovely woman though.  They fall in love, marry, and at the time of the explosion, they’re expecting their first child.  The wrinkle in their life plans: Tommy is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (much like the main character in Shattered City) and taking it out on his home and wife to the point of being a physical menace to her.

The unfortunate part of the novel is that it’s too short.  Basically, it really does centre around the explosion and rather briefly at that.  However, the subplot of the romance is something that aches to be fleshed out.  The story of Tommy is one that is really begging to be told in detail rather than in a few pages.  Because the best love stories are the ones that aren’t perfect, though (spoiler alert) this one ends perfectly.  We’re set up for conflict, but it never really comes.

In short, the story suffers from being, well, too short.  Not that things have to be long… The Bridges of Madison County was perfect in length.  But Tattrie sets things up and doesn’t run with them, which is unfortunate.  I’m not sure if Tommy ever does come to grips with the war.

Not that I’m bitter that Pottersfield Press published a romance on the Halifax explosion after sending me a rejection letter telling me they weren’t interested in romances on the Halifax explosion.

As for how Black Snow fits into the legacy of Halifax explosion romances, I think it doesn’t forge any new ground.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, when your predecessor includes Barometer Rising, you’ve got to put forth a good showing if you’re going to trump Hugh MacLennan, who’s elegantly structured novel rich in detail is always going to be a good bet.

I’m not convinced there’s any detail in Black Snow that cures that sanitization of previous literature.   I would suspect the sanitization is not the fault of the writers, but the limitations of the medium itself.  I’m not sure anyone can truly depict the horror of what happened through just words or cinematic recreations.  The real just can’t be reproduced through and of course, photographs and moving images just didn’t capture it all.   Not that art can’t capture life… but sometimes the most shocking thing about life is that it is real.

If you’re looking for a good read, Black Snow is a good bet.  It’s local, and supporting local writers is always a great thing!  However, I think Barometer Rising is still the best of the Halifax Explosion romances… probably because it’s less of a romance.  Ironic, isn’t it?

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