I first encountered this work some years ago when I was a member of the Eugene A. Forsey Prize committee for the best dissertation in labour history. Jacob Remes won that year (2012), and his fine doctoral thesis has been transformed into Disaster Citizenship, a terrific book that deserves a wide audience. Through compelling and gripping prose, the author explores the Salem fire of 1914 and the Halifax explosion of 1917. The great achievement of Disaster Citizenship is that it moves beyond the usual descriptive accounts of the disasters to an analysis that is squarely focused on the response of the largely working-class people affected. After all, both the Salem fire and the Halifax explosion “destroyed workplaces and workers’ neighbourhoods” (3).
The book takes a thematic approach with three pairs of chapters alternating between Salem and Halifax. The early chapters analyze how “apolitical” forms of pre-disaster solidarity helped to forge a political consciousness that Remes calls “disaster citizenship” (10). Historians might debate whether bonds of solidarity are ever apolitical, but, more importantly, Remes clearly illustrates how working people in the two settings used their “everyday networks and practices of solidarity” to shape their post-disaster world (23). Chapters 3 and 4 detail the efforts of well-intentioned experts who descended on the respective disaster areas and attempted to impose their own order on the communities. The final two chapters illustrate the ways that the disaster experience shaped the project of working-class resistance through unions and faith communities.
Remes’s analysis provides an opportunity to understand how the working-class world changed in the early twentieth century and the impact of this change. For those organizing formal relief in Halifax and Salem, local behaviours and networks appeared chaotic. Importantly, he notes that working-class people viewed their communities differently than the “professionalized relief authorities” charged with rebuilding the affected areas (191). Local newspapers were quick to describe scenes of disorder that reflected perceptions about gender and age, among other things. Women reportedly were in need of care and sanctuary, while an elderly man had to be forcibly taken from his yard, where he gamely tried to fight a fire. Other working people were described as animals or swarms. There were stories of “imagined looters” (72) and about the tourists who came to witness the devastation. For their part, the authorities attempted to impose a sense of [End Page 324] order following the disasters. The book has a compelling image of a young militiaman in Salem standing guard, with extensive ruins in the background, his gun and uniform symbols of the attempt to re-establish order (73). For their part, residents wanted the freedom of their neighbourhoods. One of the strongest themes of the book is that those most affected by the disasters found ways to resist. Residents created their own moral economy and their own opportunities.
There are some asymmetries in the book. Remes is more successful bringing working people to life than the relief workers. The reader gets a real sense of Salem’s diversity, but the north end of Halifax comes off as rather homogenous. Were the bonds of solidarity and mutual aid in Halifax informed by the diverse landscape of the north end, and did they cut across the various neighbourhoods? Remes also uses different terms throughout the book to describe solidarity, including “mutual,” “self-help,” and “informal.” I kept wondering if all of these forms of solidarity were the same or whether they stemmed from different sources? But this is more a question of how working-class historians should develop and extend Remes’s work rather than a criticism of it. The book obviously speaks to contemporary disasters, and the author’s own journey in writing it was “bookended” by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. I finished this review while much of Houston was experiencing a flood. To be sure, there are lessons in this book for humanitarian relief efforts that follow disasters. Remes...