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Reviewed by:
  • Sarah Toye
Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Michael Dupuis. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2016. Pp. xiii + 192, $30.00 paper

As respected Halifax Explosion scholar Alan Ruffman states in his foreword to Bearing Witness, "the role of the press in reporting the Explosion has never been compiled. . . . Michael Dupuis addresses that gap. So read on" (xiii). This text is a study of how sixteen Nova Scotian, Canadian, and American journalists and record keepers experienced and depicted the Halifax Explosion in the days immediately following the event. Dupuis starts with the work of local journalists, artists, and historians who were on the front lines of the explosion, then radiates out to the journalists who travelled to Halifax from other places in Canada and America.

Much has been written on the Halifax Explosion in the exactly 100 years since it occurred, and much of that work has relied on newspapers as vital primary sources. Newspapers have been used countless times to provide contextual information, examples, and dramatic headlines to illustrate the tragedy and devastation of the aftermath. However, not until Dupuis has someone focused on them as a topic in and of themselves. Bearing Witness provides a new take on an old tale. In past decades, most of the writings on the Halifax Explosion, though well researched and valuable, tended to repeat many of the same anecdotes focused on the victims and the tragedy without contributing new perspectives or information to the field of study. This text still manages to examine the experiences of the victims of the actual [End Page 842] explosion–local journalists–but with a specific and targeted reasoning. By this, I mean that instead of just offering a broad retelling of the many victims' experiences of the explosion with no clear objective, Dupuis examines a specific group of victims whose experiences illustrate a specific point. These particular victims had an important role to play not only in immediately disseminating the news about the event, which is how assistance arrived so quickly, but also in recognizing how the explosion and its aftermath would come to be remembered in local and national memory. Finally, after so many years, the information that created our modern knowledge and conception of the Halifax Explosion–what was the source material for every television show, movie, book, and article since–is finally being given its due.

Dupuis proves that journalists and record keepers can offer unique perspectives and details about the disaster. This text is the first thorough compilation of press writings about the Halifax Explosion and its aftermath, and it contains complete transcriptions of everything the sixteen journalists wrote on the event as well as an excellent timeline of all of the relevant press releases in the ten days following the explosion. It is well researched, and each contemporary news article includes numerous endnotes pointing out errors and additional information that will be invaluable to future scholars. The majority of analysis and interpretation, however, are exiled to these endnotes since journalist biographical information and transcriptions dominate the text itself.

This text confirms that journalists and record keepers have something to offer to our understanding of the Halifax Explosion, but it does not say what precisely that is. However, this extensive study has created a resource for those who may seek to answer those questions, particularly regarding how and why the now-ingrained myths about the disaster developed and the role of newspapers played in the fear and hysteria around the question of culpability (such as the notorious German spy theory). However, the image Dupuis paints of the journalists and record keepers seems idealistic. As is common in Halifax Explosion historiography, there is at times an overly sentimental emphasis on heroism and compassion. It was undoubtedly present and should not be ignored–for example, the local journalist James Hickey who, after being blown through the glass window of his office, immediately dashed to the demolished Cable Company building and sent out the first bulletin within half an hour–but Dupuis neglects to mention how sensationalism and misinformation in the newspapers fed the city's fear and hysteria toward those of German descent and those involved in the collision. Events...


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