Before you start to think I’m completely obsessed with the Halifax Explosion, let me explain… When I first saw this book I thought it was going to be a twist on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, set in Halifax. Which it is… but it’s not as close to A Christmas Carol as I was expecting it to be. It’s a story of faith and hope set in 1918 Halifax, and it’s saturated in stories about WWI and the Halifax Explosion. In other words, it’s even better than I was hoping it would be. And it’s inspired by a true story.
Steven Laffoley was inspired to write this book when he read the story about the “little chap” with the big heart who, in December 1918, one month after the war ended and a year after the disaster of the Halifax Explosion, brought in a 25 cent piece to the office of the Halifax Herald for “some little kid at Christmas”.
A Halifax Christmas Carol is framed by a narrator who sounds satisfyingly Dickensian (and in my head like Gonzo from The Muppet Christmas Carol).
It has been said, and I believe it is true, that the greatest things in life come from the smallest beginnings. Certainly, this might be said of the great thing that once came from a very small beginning indeed, just five weeks after the end of The Great War, and four days before Christmas, in the winter of 1918, when the city was worn and weary, and the world seemed shrouded in the worst of the darkness.
Our “Scrooge” is reporter Michael Bell, who works at the Halifax Herald. The doom and gloom attitude that surrounds him are the result of the war, the explosion, the poverty and darkness everywhere he looks, and is fueled by the “bad news” stories he reads and writes for the paper. (At this time the Spanish flu is also on the horizon.) When “Tiny Tim” comes to the office with his 25 cent piece for the kids, Michael’s boss see the opportunity to offer a little hope to Halifax in the form of a good news story, but Michael can’t imagine how a 25 cent piece will bring hope and light to the city.
Weary soldiers and worn-out civilians returned to their lives only to find their lives were no longer there.
Nevertheless, Michael is sent with his colleague Tess Archer to find this boy and to get a story by Christmas Eve. Their search for the boy takes us on a tour of 1918 Halifax, which Haligonians will love, as well as provides the reader with a variety of stories from the myriad of people they come into contact with. A priest who has lost faith, orphans who have lost their parents, women who have lost their husbands and children, and war veterans who have lost body parts.
The most compelling character we meet is The Beggar who appears in several of his own chapters. This homeless and disfigured man moves through the city that before the war welcomed him and sheltered him. Now it is repulsed by him and is in the process of starving and freezing him. Despite The Beggar’s situation, he is still able to see beauty in things and find comfort in his memories and poetry. His character is in contrast to Michael’s; a man who was fortunate enough to make it through the war, visibly unscathed, still able to be a fully functioning member of society. And yet, he can find no beauty or comfort in his life.
As time runs out, Michael becomes more cynical and intolerable, and Tess leaves him to finish the search on his own. She debates with Michael about how to get to the truth of things. “I just think art, not facts, is the way to understand truth.” Michael argues that facts are the only way, “like puzzle pieces snapping into place. When they click together, you have the whole picture.”, But Tess argues, “I don’t see it that way. You choose the facts that suit the narrative you are chasing.” As Michael’s boss at the newspaper tells him, “But there is a difference between the facts and the truth. Even after all the facts are on the table, the truth may still need to be found.”
I think you all know where the story is going. It’s (very) loosely based on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, after all; a tale that we have all come to know and love as a caution against shutting out the world and a re-awakening of joy and spirit. And, like A Christmas Carol, this is a book that could be read and enjoyed every year – a twist on an old favourite set closer to home.
The setting of Laffoley’s version is not the only difference… his version doesn’t rely on ghosts of the past, present, and future to change the heart of the protagonist, but on stories. Michael is so caught up in facts that truth passes him by. Through story, the boy helps him to see what his mother has been trying to tell him in his dreams, resulting in a satisfying ending and a perfect last line.
As Carol Bruneau says in an article at Atlantic Books Today entitled Fiction Brings Halifax Explosion to Heart, “Fiction is a passport to empathy. Fiction allows us to investigate the unknowable, the questions behind unacceptable realities that nag long after the facts get put to bed. Realities like human error and stupidity and the fact that tragedies befall innocents. Fiction lets us explore the mysteries behind suffering.” And “… characters will go before us into danger, testing the waters as nimbly as though they walked on them. It’s our job to keep seeking answers to the unanswerable.”
Jon Tattrie at Atlantic Books Today: “Laffoley paints a striking portrait of a Halifax stunned by the disaster and the just-ended war, yearning for hope and ultimately a peace that will allow them to begin to remember all that was lost.“