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History repeating

After witnessing New York’s 9/11, Laura MacDonald wrote a book about the Halifax Explosion. Colin Mackenzie reports.

Tonight New Yorker and ex-pat Dartmouthian Laura MacDonald will be on the Boston Common, a special invited guest to the lighting of the now controversial Boston Holiday/Christmas tree. This year’s tree is a 14-metre white spruce from Chester Basin.

“No one I ask in Boston ever has any idea why the tree is from Nova Scotia,” says MacDonald. But, of course, Boston was there when we needed it most; in the wake of the world’s most powerful pre-nuclear blast, the Halifax Explosion, 1917. On December 6, 88 years after the disaster, MacDonald will be reading from her new book on the topic at the North Branch Memorial Library

A fiction writer by trade, MacDonald fully admits she did not come organically to the topic of her first non-fiction book, Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917. Calling from Winnipeg on the last date on the second leg of a reading tour that began almost a month ago, she is exhausted but fully appreciative of the attention and praise her writing has already garnered.

“I am not surprised at the response because it is a great story that I was just lucky enough to have discovered,” she says. MacDonald is about to have dinner followed by a reading with a recent fan—writer and phenomenal raconteur Simon Winchester. He has “blurbed” her new book with “MacDonald is a genius of a researcher and a demon of a writer.” What MacDonald has done differently with this oft told story is made it more human. She’s used tactile descriptors to make a confusing and terrifying time come alive. We experience the disaster right alongside the cast of characters of the story.

Published but still aspiring, MacDonald moved to New York City in 2001.Without a green card or job prospects she did what any desperate writer does: called friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends about possible writing gigs. One returned call was from an editor acquaintance, also Canadian, enthralled with the Halifax Explosion. He tried to convince a doubting MacDonald the explosion could make a great book.

“After six weeks of research and reading through books that had sufficiently dealt with that same subject I could not see why another book needed to be written,” says MacDonald. “So I called him up and said no.”

Two weeks later, on a clear sunny day, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the world, as we all knew it, changed. MacDonald watched from her apartment as her adopted city’s disaster began to unfold. She remembers the silt, smell, sorrow, confusion and the outpouring of aid. MacDonald was in awe. Much of what was happening in post 9/11 New York City was exactly what she had just been reading about while researching the book.

It was her memories of the annual Christmas tree lighting that inspired her to question, “Why Boston?” A trip to that city and then one to Halifax ensued. MacDonald was surprised to discover that many of those same hands held out to New York City in its time of need were direct descendents of Bostonians that had come to Halifax’s assistance in 1917. Coordination, logistics and aid to Halifax had been at the frontier of disaster relief put into place by the Boston-based Red Cross Society. This was enough to draw MacDonald back into the story and 12 months later she resurfaced with an outline for her book.

The story captivated MacDonald and she remains hooked even today.

“I want to make sure you say the cemetery in Halifax for the unidentified dead from the explosion is in horrible repair, so disrespectful,” she says. MacDonald has a new-found respect for history and what it offers. Her book went on sale September 24, one month after North America’s most televised disaster debacle—Hurricane Katrina. “After Katrina people got it.”

Laura MacDonald reads from Curse of the narrows: THe halifax explosion 1917, December 6 at the north branch memorial library, 2285 Gottingen, 7pm, 490-5723.

Read chapter 10 of MacDonald's book here

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