I began writing the Curse of the Narrows after I emigrated to New York City from Toronto in 2000. While waiting for my green card, I began researching the 1917 explosion that obliterated half of my hometown, Halifax, Nova Scotia. After reading the extant literature on the explosion, I decided not to write about it as much of it appeared to have been documented. Two weeks later, I woke up on September 11, 2001 and watched in incredulity as so many of the details that I had just research repeated themselves.
I was immediately struck by the similarities between the explosion and the terrorist attack. Walking out onto First Avenue in East Harlem, one of the noisiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, I found everyone silent. A parade of people a marched up First Avenue in silence. Women who would be afraid to drive through my neighborhood passed through Harlem without the least sign of distress other than heat and thirst. Bystanders stood on the sidewalks, offering assistance. As the day progressed I began anticipating what would happen next and was surprised to see my guesses prove correct: People went from hospital to hospital in search of loved ones. The affected area was cordoned off and only people who lived there were allowed to enter. The mayor warned against profiteering and strangers took in abandoned pets. Sadly, the task of recovering the bodies was controversial and continued long after daily life had resumed. Over the following months, I was impressed not so much by the politicians or the police chief but by the average people working in long shifts to restore order. Telephone wire crews were working constantly in Tribeca. Crane operators and dump truck drivers were everywhere. And always, sirens screaming through the streets. The similarities were striking.
I knew that I had an emotional commitment to the story that I did not have before, but it was not enough to write a book detailing a century old catastrophe. A book must be bigger than that to capture the minds of smart readers. I did not want to write a ‘disaster book’ so I returned to researching the explosion and discovered that the same people who had produced the first handbook on the problems and solutions of domestic disasters, the American Red Cross, were the same people who traveled to Halifax. When I found and read their book, I was astonished to realize that the practices they put into place in 1917 were still being used in 2001. When I mentioned my interest to my father-in-law, a pediatric heart surgeon, he told me the story of Dr. Williams E. Ladd, a surgeon who traveled to Halifax from Boston to assist with the medical relief. The discoveries he made there allowed him to establish the first pediatric surgery ward in North America. For readers these might not be the most exciting parts of the book, but they were exciting for me because they took the explosion out of its hermetic history.
Ultimately what I learned on 911, and which I hope I have conveyed in Curse of the Narrows, is that different people experience disasters and catastrophes in different ways. Some people see the experience as an opportunity to increase knowledge; some people enjoy the hiatus from everyday life, some take much longer than others to understand its meaning while others, many others, lives are irrevocably shattered. And while everyone’s experiences are not all equally weighted, they are certainly all honest.