I cannot BELIEVE it has taken me this long to get to this book! This is legit an excellent book, and not “excellent for 12-year-olds” but an actual good book in its very own right. Please read it.
No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917, Julia Lawson, 2006.
Now this is special in a few ways—first of all, today, December sixth, is the 99th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is why I chose today to run this book! If you’re not familiar with it, go read my article that ran on The Toast about it a few years back. Secondly, this is my one hundredth book review and I wanted to pick a book I really loved. Thirdly, when I did my Master’s degree my focus was the First World War in the Maritimes, so I did tons and tons of reading about the Explosion, so this book has a lot of meaning for me. What a great day for a great book!
One of the things I love about this book is that like so many Dear Canada books, it absolutely does not have a particularly happy ending. (This isn’t really a spoiler, the Explosion happens like a third of the way into the book and it’s in the damn title, so there.) Charlotte doesn’t miraculously come through the disaster with all of her family intact, but it’s not at all contrived or tearjerky. And secondly—the diary format works amazingly well here. Last week I reviewed a rebooted Dear America on the San Francisco earthquake, which on the surface had a lot of similarities to this one—young woman in an urban area faces family difficulties that are thrown into explicit focus after a major disaster strikes her city, and drama follows it. But while A City Tossed and Broken seemed to focus on the drama, No Safe Harbour is allllllll about how the Explosion has made such an enormous impact on everyone’s life that it’s impossible to discard. Now let’s learn.
Charlotte, who is twelve, is just-barely-the-youngest of five kids—her eldest brother Luke is fighting in France, her next-up sister Edith finished with school and working, bratty teenage sister Ruth in high school, and Charlotte’s slightly-elder twin brother, Duncan. Her father is a dock worker in Halifax, and they live quite happily, although not wealthily, in the north end of Halifax.
At this point, in the fall of 1917, the biggest thing going on for Charlotte’s family is the war and missing Luke overseas. But because Charlotte is just twelve, she mostly goes to school and piano lessons and hangs out with her friends and fights with Ruth. Her diary was a gift from Luke for her birthday, and he promises to keep a journal all about fighting in France. Her family is quite close—they spend time together every evening and go for picnics on the weekend, where Edith meets a couple of soldiers who are pretty taken with how pretty she is. I know that the whole first section of the book is designed to be as cozy and loving as possible to deliver maximum impact, but my God, it works. Everything about their lives seems incredibly cozy and pleasant despite the war and their fear for Luke.
Charlotte is especially close with her twin, Duncan—they spend most of their time together, and sometimes they can tell what the other is thinking, in a sort of typical twin stuff. She’s a member of Junior Red Cross with her friends—one of whom, Eva, is the daughter of a German immigrant, which earns her a ration of shit among the other kids in the class. Charlotte and Duncan dress up as each other for Halloween, and defend Eva’s younger brother from some bullies who are calling him a “Kraut” that night as well.
There’s some mystery about her parents, too—their mother refuses to say anything about her past before she got married, and claims not to remember. They have no grandparents—her mother’s side being out of the picture and dad’s parents long deceased. Charlotte is a bit jealous of her friends with large extended families, but ultimately she’s more worried about her piano lessons and mean teachers at school.
The last week in December Edith starts making Charlotte a new dress for Christmas—and Charlotte and Duncan find out that Ruth is planning to drop out of school and start working at the telephone company by lying and saying she’s sixteen. Edith’s boyfriend, one of the soldiers they met, comes by to see her twice a week and asks her to marry him on the fifth. They’re all wild with excitement—they love Charlie—and this makes up for the news they get that Luke was injured at Passchendaele and is in hospital recuperating from a leg injury and bronchitis.
The morning of the sixth, Charlotte is getting ready to have breakfast when the Explosion happens—it goes very suddenly from her being cozy in bed to literally sitting in a hospital corridor with no idea how any of it happened. It’s just beautifully written—I would quote the next ten pages if I could—but it’s horrifying at the same time. “I remember seeing bodies. Bodies everywhere…and parts of bodies. Crushed and burned and mangled. And the sounds of shrieking and moaning…” She figures out that a soldier brought her to the hospital in a motorcar, but she’s in a bed and then suddenly it’s that night and a nurse is washing the blood off her. She has to share a bed with a four-year-old girl whose eye had to be removed—too full of glass splinters to save. “I’m afraid to go to sleep. I’m afraid to stay awake.” There’s a blizzard storming away outside and more and more people just start coming in.
Her friend Muriel’s mother finds her in the hospital and tells her she identified the bodies of her dad and Edith at the morgue. Charlotte thinks her mother and Duncan are dead as well, and Ruth maybe—she thinks she’s alone except for Luke, who’s an ocean away. Muriel’s mother offers to let Charlotte stay with them when she’s able to leave the hospital, because there is no one else for her. When Charlotte writes about the explosion, she writes that she was blown straight into the air and dumped somewhere—she wasn’t sure where—and when she made it home, the house was in ruins but on fire, and her mother was alive but buried in the rubble and shouting for Ruth. Soldiers collecting people with injuries had to tear Charlotte away from the house before it burnt down around her—and she’s convinced that Duncan was trapped and buried in the house too, because Ruth had gone to her new job. But she realizes that she saw Ruth’s locket on the ground—next to the hand buried in the wreckage she thought belonged to Duncan—and knows that Ruth hadn’t made it to her job at all, and she is dead and Duncan is missing.
Charlotte’s mother’s last words were instructing who she thought was Ruth to “find Father Young.” She thinks this is a pastor that she’s never heard of, and asks everyone in all the relief societies, but no one’s ever heard of anyone by that name. She goes to stay with Muriel’s family—fourteen people crammed into a damaged and not-big-enough house—and Muriel’s mother takes her to the morgue to identify Ruth’s body by the effects that were with it. She has to make all the arrangements for the funeral of her mother and father and two sisters herself, with Muriel’s mother’s help, because there is no one else to do it. This is all just so, so, so well written, and so gut-wrenching and awful.
Amazingly, though, Charlotte’s dog has survived! (I totally cried at this part.) A family friend took her over to a kennel where they were keeping unclaimed pets, and Kirsty—their dog—leaps into Charlotte’s arms. “The minute she saw me her ears cocked up and she made her happy arroo sounds, her whole body quivering with joy. I sank to my knees and hugged her, my face pressed against her side, sobbing with relief, until her fur was wet with tears.” Of course I cried! I’m not a monster!
By Wednesday the 19th, the Relief Committee tells Charlotte they’re moving her to the home of a Mrs. Kessler because the Chisholms’ house is unsafe and too crowded—so they’re cast out. The Kesslers are taking in some children over Christmas, which is just a few days away, at their home in the wealthy part of Halifax. There’s six kids there, of whom Charlotte is the oldest, and she notes that there’s more toys than they’ve ever seen anywhere but a store—people have donated all kinds of things.
And then, amazingly—Duncan is alive! Charlotte is so happy she can barely handle it—it turns out he was knocked unconscious and taken to Truro, where he recuperated and didn’t regain his memory until that day. He’s sent to stay with the Kesslers, too, so he and Charlotte can be together, and he tells her that Ruth had indeed gotten found out at the telephone company and sent home early. Ruth had blamed him and Charlotte—and even though they didn’t get along one bit, Charlotte is distressed that Ruth’s last thoughts of her were angry ones.
Some good news—Luke is sent home to them on compassionate leave while he’s recovering, which they find out on Christmas Eve. The little children are worried that Santa won’t find them in their new home, but Mrs. Kessler has made all the arrangements and keeps them all so busy with decorating that they don’t have time to be sad. Remember—these are seven kids who have all lost their entire families. Parents, siblings, you name it. They are staying with strangers because they have nowhere else to go and have lost everything they own. What a merry fucking Christmas for them. The Kesslers do their best—plenty of gifts and a turkey dinner—but even the little kids can’t quite manage to be very merry.
Just after Christmas, Charlotte turns a page in her diary and finds that everyone in her family wrote in it when Luke gave it to her for her birthday, as a surprise. Duncan, Ruth, Edith, her parents, and even a doggie print. I TOTALLY cried at this part. God, but it’s well done. Then it’s time for Duncan and Charlotte to go have a look at what remains of their house—and what some men found there were some letters wrapped in oilcloth, and Charlotte can’t figure out how they survived. They’re letters written by Charlotte’s mother, to a couple on Young Avenue, all sent back unopened. Mrs. Kessler says they should reach out to the Wakefields—the people the letter is addressed to—because even if there was bad blood, they deserve to know what happened to their daughter and her family. She agrees to go meet them first and explain everything, and then take the twins later.
Just after New Year’s, they meet the Wakefields themselves—they’re very wealthy (even now Young Avenue in Halifax is wildly ritzy), but kind, and thoughtful, and want Charlotte and Duncan to live with them. They explain what happened—that there had been a very bad quarrel among all parties—but that they never knew about any of the children. “Mr. Wakefield’s eyes brimmed over. He looked at Duncan and me and said ‘If you can forgive us, I swear to God we’ll do right by your mother now.’” OH LOOK CRYING AGAIN.
So off they go to live with the Kesslers, in their grand and beautiful house with a maid and cook and manservant. It’s so unlike anything they had ever imagined. Charlotte gives her grandmother her diary to read—“so you’ll know who we’ve lost” (here come tears) and when she comes back, her grandparents are weeping and explain everything about the past. Then on the tenth Luke comes home and I cried again a bit—he didn’t know about Ruth’s death, or his girlfriend Jane’s—and Charlotte has to break the news to him about them. But he also gets to find out that Duncan is alive and they have a set of grandparents ready to take them in. They fall in love with Luke immediately, and he does his best to keep things cheerful—“I know he’s hurting though, because sometimes at night I hear him weeping.” Oh god.
They file a claim for everything they lost—the house and all its contents—which takes them forever, and brings up a million memories as well. Charlotte is going to be enrolled in a fancy school—Halifax Ladies’ College—with none of her friends, just as Luke is being sent back overseas. But it turns out the girls at the College are a bit snobby, and look at Charlotte’s scars strangely—so she asks to go to the regular public school instead, with her friends and Duncan. And she’s much happier there by March—things are beginning to look up the smallest, tiniest bit. “The other day Gran asked me what I want to be when I grow up, before I become a wife and mother. I told her I didn’t know because I don’t think that far ahead anymore. I just want to be a good person and make the most out of every single day.”
In the epilogue (which is unsurprisingly handled as well as the rest of the book)—it talks about how Charlotte does okay until the spring and summer, when the loss begins to hit her very hard and she and Duncan both suffer from what’s basically PTSD. Luke develops pneumonia and is sent home to Halifax to recover and can no longer remain in the army, which turns out to be for the best as by the time he leaves the hospital the Spanish flu is raging. Charlotte eventually goes to Dalhousie to become a doctor, and worked as a family physician for many years staying in her grandparents’ house after their deaths. She married a musician and had a daughter, and Duncan became an Anglican minister—then went overseas as a chaplain during the Second World War, returning with an English war bride. Charlotte and Duncan remained the best of friends all their lives.
Rating: A+. God, but I love this book. It’s so perfectly done. It’s the best Dear Canada book going. Ultimately, the family drama and mystery at the core of the last third of the book takes a backseat to the trauma of the Explosion, which is of course how it should be. At no point does it feel like it’s a drama crudely tacked onto an existing disaster, it all manages to come together seamlessly and beautifully. It’s amazingly well-written—sympathetic, funny in spots, tearjerking in others, emotionally manipulative in the very best of ways—and it appeals to adults just as much as kids. Charlotte is mature for her age but she still seems realistic as a twelve-year-old, and it never comes off as mawkish or sentimental. God, just….read this book. Just go read this book. I’ll wait. Here’s a tissue.