Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan

Disaster in Nova Scotia
Canadian author Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 book Barometer Rising is a historical novel focusing on the Halifax Explosion of 1917. During World War I, Halifax served as an important seaport for shipping supplies to the war effort in Europe. As the result of an accidental collision, a French munitions ship blew up in Halifax harbor, leveling entire neighborhoods and killing approximately 2000 people. MacLennan, who grew up in Halifax, experienced the event as a young boy.

The novel opens a few days before the disaster. A soldier returns to Halifax after having been wounded in France. He faces a court martial for disobeying an order on the battlefield, and has returned home to seek out other men from his unit who might clear his name. His nemesis and former commanding officer, Colonel Geoffrey Wain, runs a shipbuilding company in Halifax, where Penelope Wain, the colonel’s daughter, works as a ship designer. She previously had a love affair with the soldier in question, but has since begun a relationship with another former member of his battalion. All parties are caught unawares when disaster strikes.

MacLennan is definitely a writer of great literary talent. Though he approaches World War I from a totally different perspective, some passages are reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. On the other hand, the court martial and love triangle storylines get a little melodramatic at times, like something one might find in a war novel by Pearl S. Buck or James Michener. Oddly enough, what the plot of Barometer Rising really calls to mind are those disaster movies of the 1970s, like Airport or The Towering Inferno. Three quarters of the book is spent establishing intrigue and romance, when what the reader is really waiting for is the disaster, at which point all bets are off and the intrigue and romance take a back seat to survival. When MacLennan does finally depict the disaster, it is a tour de force of gripping realism. I knew nothing about the Halifax Explosion beforehand, but reading this book has given me not only a firm grasp of the factual events but also a visceral understanding of the sheer horror of the catastrophe.

Where Barometer Rising really rises above the level of a disaster potboiler, however, is in its thoughtful contemplation of Canadian identity. Just as important as the historical narrative of the disaster is MacLennan’s inquiry into what it means to be a Canadian, a Nova Scotian, or a Haligonian. He questions his nation’s role in the Great War, not only for the jingoism and opportunism that come with wartime but also for the treatment of Canada as a sort of vassal state to Great Britain. At what point does the former colony come into its own as an independent nation? Of course, Canada has gone a long way towards solving this identity crisis over the past century, due in no small part to the work of artists like MacLennan, but this book serves as an insightful time capsule of feelings on Canadian nationalism at the time of its publication. Though a native of Nova Scotia himself, MacLennan’s depiction of Halifax is not always flattering. He paints an objective portrait, at times nostalgically reverential and at times scathingly critical. The novel ends in a hopeful tone, however, as, much like New York after 9/11, the citizenry rises to the occasion and works toward recovery.

In Canada, Barometer Rising is considered a landmark book in the development of that nation’s literature. For readers elsewhere, it’s a powerful reminder that the rich literary history of the Great White North deserves greater recognition and should not be overlooked.
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