Halifax Explosion: ‘The Blind Mechanic’ and ‘Breaking Disaster’

The Blind Mechanic was already on my list when it was shortlisted for both the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing and the Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award (Non-fiction).  And judging by how long my library copy took to come in, it’s been on many others’ lists as well.

An already well-known survivor of the Halifax Explosion, people are still hungry to learn more about Eric Davidson. And it’s no wonder – his is the kind of story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t true.

Eric Davidson was just a toddler when the Mont Blanc and Imo collided in Halifax Harbour the morning of December 6th, 1917. He was playing at the window when the blast occurred, resulting in the loss of both his eyes.

He was still a toddler and he did not understand why it was now always dark, so he frequently asked his parents to turn on the lights.

He grew up in a happy home (although his mother’s grief over his loss of sight changed her forever), with parents and siblings who fostered his love of learning. He had a an interest in cars and engines, and when the mechanic program wouldn’t take him because of his blindness, he was determined to learn on his own. His brothers read to him from car manuals as he learned each part of the engine and the placement of it by feel. He also taught himself how to detect the source of engine troubles just by listening to it run, which is something the other mechanics couldn’t do.

“Anyone can do it… anyone in my condition can do exactly what I am doing,” he says with conviction.

Eric was educated at the Halifax School for the Blind where he made friends and learned to navigate life as a sightless person. Some say that if you didn’t already know Eric was completely blind, you wouldn’t be able to detect it upon first meeting him.

Eric married Mary Zinck in 1950. Mary was visually impaired and had also attended the School for the Blind in Halifax. They had three children, their daughter being Marilyn Davidson Elliott, the author of this book.

The fact that the author is Eric Davidson’s daughter is what makes this book more than a biography of an amazing man. It’s also a memoir of what it was like to be the daughter of Eric Davidson, as well as a child of a sightless parent. Reading about Eric’s career as a mechanic is remarkable, but what I loved most was reading about his day to day life as a husband and father of three children.

Life holds very great happiness and interest for me. Ninety more years would be too short for all the different things I have in mind to do. I guess the poet who wrote about God taking away eyesight so that the soul might see had something very real to say. — Eric Davidson

 

Further Reading: 

Laura Bain interviews author Marilyn Davidson Elliott about her book, The Blind Mechanic: Marilyn Davidson Elliott talks about her father’s optimism and popularity, and the loving home she grew up in, as well as about the way in which her father taught himself to become a mechanic.

National Film Board of Canada vignette about Eric Davidson (1979)

Obituary of Eric Davidson, age 94 in The Globe and Mail: “One of the last seriously injured survivors of the massive explosion that devastated Halifax in 1917 was mourned Sunday.”


 

 

Reading The Blind Mechanic was just the nudge I needed to pick up my copy of Breaking Disaster, which I won through a contest on the author’s Facebook page (Thank you, Katie!).

There are many non-fiction books about the Halifax Explosion out there, but Breaking Disaster offers the unique perspective of seeing the disaster through newspaper headlines.

Katie Ingram scoured the newspapers around the world that came out at the time of the explosion. In her book she looks at what was printed versus what really happened, including rumours that were spread through inaccurate information and paranoia, as well as survival and hero stories that we still hear of today (including the story of Eric Davidson).

Perhaps we think we know all there is to know about this catastrophe. But just as one story is revealed, another finds its way out of the past.

Halifax resident and World War I veteran Duncan Grey was quoted by The Canadian Press as having said that the Halifax Explosion was “the worst that I ever hope to see in the world”, that it was a “thousand times worse” and “more pathetic” than anything he saw in the trenches.

I was struck by how far and wide the news of the disaster spread – Ingram includes headlines from newspapers as far away as Hawaii and Australia. I was also surprised by the strength of the rumours about the explosion being in some way related to the war. People at the time wanted someone to blame for what happened, and there were many different theories about how the Germans might have been involved.

… Breaking Disaster’s focus is on these early misconceptions, changing facts, and mistaken information.

This is a book about survivors who shared their stories in those early hours and days.

Breaking Disaster emphasizes the importance of newspapers for wide-spread communication. For most people, newspapers were the only way they had to find out what was going on; town meetings, job opportunities, calls for volunteers, where to go for help or supplies, and most importantly to check the mounting death list. Citizens also put their own ads in to help them locate missing family members.

As for the lists of the dead, missing, and injured, they grew every single day and by December 9 and 10 took up two to three pages.

Ingram’s book also points out the glaring gap of stories that were not in the newspapers; stories about the the First Nations community of Turtle Grove on the Dartmouth side of the harbour and Africville, an African Nova Scotian community along Bedford Basin. As a result, there’s still very little information about what went on in these communities the day of the explosion and in the months and years after.

The Halifax Explosion killed 2000, injured 9000, and left more than 10,000 homeless. But it did not stop affecting people after their stories were out of the newspapers. There are thousands of stories and thousands of people whose lives were instantly changed or destroyed. And, ultimately, how much we know about them depends on who we are, where we are from, our tie in history, and what we read.

If you want to read more about the Halifax Explosion, visiting my Halifax Explosion Reading List might be a good start.

 

Further Reading:

An article in The Walrus by Katie Ingram about the children of the Halifax Explosion:There were so many youngsters roaming among the ruins that police tried to establish some type of order by rounding up children who were wandering “through the wilderness of wreckage weeping bitterly or calling for their mothers.

Interview with Katie Ingram at CTV Morning News about Breaking Disaster (4 minutes): Katie Ingram talks about the similarities between the way news was printed then versus the way we Tweet it now.

An article in Halifax Magazine by Katie Ingram about the quick spread of rumours to newspapers around the world after the Halifax Explosion:Despite, or perhaps because of, their factual errors, these newspaper reports are valuable historical records: they capture a real-time reaction–the shock, anguish, and confusion that gripped Halifax after the disaster.

 

33 thoughts on “Halifax Explosion: ‘The Blind Mechanic’ and ‘Breaking Disaster’

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent reviews. I recently read about the explosion in Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and I’ve been interested in learning more. Both of these sound detailed and insightful.

  2. wadholloway says:

    I’d never heard of the Halifax Explosion- I’d better get on to mr google. Often driving I’m aware something has gone wrong – a tone or a vibration has changed, but I’m rarely aware of just exactly what it is.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Both these books sound wonderful. As you know i loved Dazzle Patterns, and this is such an important part of Canadian history I do hope people make the effort to learn more! Interesting about the communities we didn’t hear much about after the explosion, the first nations etc. I wonder how different it would be today?

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Do you still have quite a few books on your reading list that you haven’t made it to yet? Did the 100-year “celebration” bring a substantial number of other books into the arena?

    I love seeing your project list grow ever-more-impressive and with such personal stories too!

    • Naomi says:

      The 100-year mark definitely brought more books into the arena, these being two of them. And there was a whole flurry of children’s books, some of which I’d like to read!
      I still have a ways to go! (Although, my plan isn’t to necessarily read them all. I’m mostly interested in the fiction.)

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