The Great Halifax Explosion

A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
Narrated by: Johnny Heller
Length: 10 hrs and 38 mins
Categories: History, Americas
4.6 out of 5 stars (233 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From New York Times best-selling author John U. Bacon, a gripping narrative history of the largest manmade detonation prior to Hiroshima: In 1917, a ship laden with the most explosives ever packed on a vessel sailed out of Brooklyn's harbor for the battlegrounds of World War I; when it stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an extraordinary disaster awaited....

On Monday, December 3, 1917, the French freighter SS Mont-Blanc set sail from Brooklyn carrying the largest cache of explosives ever loaded onto a ship, including 2,300 tons of picric acid, an unstable, poisonous chemical more powerful than TNT. The US had just recently entered World War I, and the ordnance was bound for the battlefields of France to help the Allies break the grueling stalemate that had protracted the fighting for nearly four demoralizing years. 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.

Sailing north, the Mont-Blanc faced deadly danger, enduring a terrifying snowstorm off the coast of Maine and evading stealthy enemy U-boats hunting the waters of the Atlantic. But it was in Nova Scotia that an extraordinary disaster awaited. As the Mont-Blanc waited to dock in Halifax, it was struck by a Norwegian relief ship, the Imo, charging out of port. A small fire on the freighter's deck caused by the impact ignited the explosives below, resulting in a horrific blast that, in 1/15 of a second, leveled 325 acres of Halifax - killing more than 1,000 people and wounding 9,000 more.

In this definitive account, Bacon combines research and eyewitness accounts to re-create the tragedy and its aftermath, including the international effort to rebuild the devastated port city. As he brings to light one of the most dramatic incidents of the 20th century, Bacon explores the long shadow this first "weapon of mass destruction" would cast on the future of nuclear warfare - crucial insights and understanding relevant to us today.

©2017 John U. Bacon (P)2017 HarperCollins Publishers

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What listeners say about The Great Halifax Explosion

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Wow! What a story!

Excellent research and an exquisitely told story of tragedy and triumph. The narration is perfect. The story is not well known now, but should be. I give this book and recording my highest recommendation.

2 people found this helpful

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A very detailed account of an unfortunate event!

Before embarking on a road-trip to Halifax, I downloaded this audio book to listen to while driving from VA to NS. This book covered much more detail than I expected, though I found it to be very engaging none-the-less. It served well to help me learn more about this event that shaped the areas around where the explosion happened as well as relations between the US and Canada. Initially, I found the level of detail to be overwhelming, however, as I continued listening, I appreciated these interwoven storylines and data points. John U. Bacon went to great lengths to pull together a huge variety of information from many disciplines--and did so with a very obvious fondness and tenderness for the people whose lives were affected by this tragedy. Johnny Heller did a seamless job of narrating this book as well--and though I don't know French, I saw another reviewer pointed out that Heller's pronunciation and accent were accurate, which only allowed better focus on the book (meaning, not distracted by anything in the narration, as can happen sometimes.) I also agree with fellow reviewers who noted Heller's appropriate seriousness and light-heartedness at times throughout the book. It has been about 10 years since the last time I read a book of this length. Also about 10 years since I listened to a book of this length. It took me a while to get back into the rhythm of a book of this length, but it was well worth it for its richness in detail and human capabilities.

2 people found this helpful

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The best story I never heard of

This is a really interesting, very engaging story about a major event I had never heard of. I've read a lot of Bacon's work. I'm a University of Michigan fan, and he covers the school's athletics pretty extensively. While this book has one very minor connecting thread to Michigan, Bacon's reputation lead me to give it a shot. I'm really glad I did.

He tells the story of this horrific event by telling the stories of several people directly affected by it, and involved in the recovery efforts. It's a great way to really humanize it and make the whole ordeal feel very real. It's less about the number of tons of explosives, and more about the people.

Johnny Heller does an excellent job reading this. He smoothly slips into a flawless French accent when pronouncing the many French words and names, which really makes things flow nicely. He bring proper seriousness to a serious topic, but keeps the light moments light. A great pairing or reader and author here.

2 people found this helpful

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Great by chapter 17

I enjoyed this book, but my God, the author spends 16 chapters droning on about everything from the American Civil War to the sinking of the Titanic. After listening to so much barely relevant history for so many chapters, it was only enjoyable once it finally wound around to the actual Halifax Explosion, beginning at chapter 18. Narration was fine, but I would say that nearly half of the the overall story is padding.

1 person found this helpful

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A tragic but also very hopeful book

Excellent research. Riveting Writing/Performance Opens with the foibles and blindness to possible tragedy that all humanity suffers from. Describes in detail how real people dealt with the biggest human made explosion in history up to that point in time. Describes how when everything is gone humans are basically good, caring and wanting to help others. Left me feeling that we still have hope to return to less hateful, polarized times. I'm just praying it doesn't take a terrible tragic event to get us there

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Informative and interesting

Having visited Halifax a couple of times I found this book to be very informative and appreciated the fine citizens of Canada. Their heroism is to this day very much appreciated.

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Too much hostility towards Americans

I am a history buff and am extremely interested in the supposed subject of this book. However, the writer seems to aimlessly wander from topic to topic, most of them not relevant to the Halifax explosion. The anti-American sentiment is just too much. He writes from the perspective of a Canadian that simply cannot help but rehash his disdain for the US over and over; and that was a dealbreaker for me. Will be asking for a refund on this one.

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  • WZ
  • 09-25-19

Outstanding treatment of a little-known disaster

The book is a well-told sad story of the Halifax explosion on 1917 which killed perhaps as many as 3,000 people (1,953 deaths accounted for) and injured over 9,000 people. Highly recommended.

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it was the worst of times and the best of humanity

Two great nations. Troubling times. Men and women behaving humanly. Shows the way for all.

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Unsung heros unearthed amidst overlooked history

Loved this retelling of an all too often forgotten chapter of history that's had ripple effects up to the modern day. This true story uncovered everyday heros who emerged n the middle of one of North America's greatest (and mostly unknown) tragedies.