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Nicola’s Books – Book Talk & Signing – The Great Halifax Explosion

December 5, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

THE GREAT HALIFAX EXPLOSION: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism

December 6, 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, and this will be the definitive book on the tragedy, bringing to light one of the most dramatic events of the twentieth century. Bacon offers a gripping narrative-nonfiction account of the world’s first “weapon of mass destruction,” that explores the political, military, and human interest dimensions of the event, and its lasting impact.

Entering World War I’s fourth demoralizing year, the Allies hoped to break the grueling stalemate by sending thousands of fresh American troops and more munitions than ever to the trenches of France. The French freighter Mont-Blanc set sail from Brooklyn on December 1, 1917 with a staggering 3,000 tons of explosives aboard. The explosives were so dangerous that Captain Aimé Le Medec took unprecedented safety measures, including banning the crew from smoking, lighting matches, or even touching a drop of liquor. He even had the volatile cargo secured with copper nails because they don’t spark when struck.

For four harrowing days, the floating powder keg bobbed up the Eastern seaboard, plowing through a wicked snowstorm and waters infested with German U-Boats, which had already torpedoed a thousand Allied ships that year alone. But it was in Nova Scotia that an extraordinary disaster awaited. On December 6, the exhausted crew finally slipped into Halifax Harbour—just as the relief ship Imo was rushing to leave. At 8:45 a.m., the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc’s bow, knocking over barrels of airplane fuel. Fire swept across the decks, sending the Mont-Blanc’s crew scurrying to their lifeboats, while Halifax longshoremen, office workers, and schoolchildren walked down to watch it burn.

At 9:04:35 a.m., the Mont-Blanc erupted, leveling 2.5 square miles of Halifax, killing 2,000 people, and wounding 9,000 more—all in one-fifteenth of a second. It was the largest manmade detonation ever prior to the A-bomb.

Now, noted historian John U. Bacon combines research and eyewitness accounts to re-create the recklessness that caused the tragedy, the selfless rescue efforts that saved thousands, and the inspiring resilience that rebuilt the town. Just hours after the explosion, Boston alone sent 100 doctors, 300 nurses, and a million dollars. To this day, Halifax still sends an annual Christmas tree to the city of Boston as a symbol of thanks for the assistance. Bacon also explores how the explosion would revolutionize ophthalmology and pediatrics; transform Canada and the U.S. from adversaries to allies; and show J. Robert Oppenheimer, who studied Halifax closely, how much destruction an atomic bomb could inflict on a city.



The hero of the Halifax Explosion is none other than Joseph Barss, Michigan’s first hockey coach. We follow Barss from his college hockey playing days in Nova Scotia to his promising business career in Montreal to the trenches of World War I, and then finally back to Halifax to recover when the ship blows up. He uses his basic first aid to spend three days and nights with almost no sleep healing everyone he can, and decides to become a doctor. That sends him to UM’s medical school, where he gets married and starts UM’s hockey program. We follow him through his incredible letters, the interviews John did with his son, and information from his grandsons, all still attached to UM.

We will also make available the book John released with the late John Saunders in August, Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, which includes a chapter of Saunders’ semester playing hockey for Michigan (he was the first player to step on the new ice at Yost). It just hit the New York Times sports bestseller list, and has received great reviews from the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, and more, including an Amazon book of the month for August.

While John will spend most of his time talking about Michigan’s Joseph Barss and the Halifax Explosion, he’ll spend a few minutes talking about John Saunders and their book together, too.



“Bacon documents the terrifying incident in vivid detail… an absorbing history of disaster and survival.”


The Great Halifax Explosion is absorbing from first page to last. With deep research and evocative writing, John U. Bacon has brought back to life this devastating wartime event and illuminated its lasting meaning.”
— DAVID MARANISS, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Once in a Great City

“The most destructive moment of World War I occurred far from the Western Front, in Canada, where an explosion blew a city apart but propelled two nations together. John U. Bacon, a superbly talented historian and story teller, has rescued from obscurity an astonishing episode of horror and heroism.”


“When I first encountered the Halifax Explosion, I knew immediately it was a tick-tock of a story just waiting to become a book. John U. Bacon is clearly the perfect writer for the job, able to keep you awake reading hours after your spouse has turned out the lights. In this suspenseful tale of heartbreak and heroism, Bacon deftly recreates a world at war and sheds new light on one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.”
— BETH MACY, author of Factory Man and Truevine

“Fans of Ken Burns, Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, and John Hersey’s Hiroshima will find in John Bacon’s meticulous reporting a story that literally rocked the world. What Bacon does so humanely, so expertly, and so compellingly is bring this story back from obscurity, into vivid life. Amid a gripping, tick-tock narrative, we see materialize before us people we feel we already know, long gone, meeting their own days and challenges. We know how it will end for them—or we think we do. That is the thrill of this book: to learn to care about these people under Bacon’s expert artistry, and to see this calamitous event rippling through life today. This is a story with an enormous heart; this is an author with astounding range as a journalist and page-turning storyteller.”

DOUG STANTON, New York Times-bestselling author of Horse Soldiers



John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Three and Out (“An epic piece of reporting” — New York magazine); Fourth and Long (“Wonderfully reported, engagingly written, and utterly persuasive.”— Daniel Okrent), and Endzone. He appears often on NPR and national TV, and teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan. He lives in Ann Arbor, with his wife and son.


December 5, 2017
7:00 pm
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Nicola’s Books
2513 Jackson Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48103 United States
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