Resources II: Popular Histories

Some of the most compelling information about disasters comes from “popular histories” (by “popular,” I mean that they aren’t necessarily written by academic scholars for other academics, but instead are written with a broad, general audience in mind). Some of these histories have been so popular that they, more than the original event itself, are actually the inspiration for many songs. This is especially true in the case of Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice (1972). Cassie Brown was an award-winning author and journalist who wrote a number of books about disasters. But none was more popular than her first book, Death on the Ice, which documents the tragic tale of the Newfoundland sealing ship, when over one hundred men got lost on the ice in a vicious storm, resulting in the deaths of 78. Brown’s book helped to bring national attention to the tragedy, and it was incorporated into the reading lists of many Newfoundland schools. Quite a few composers of songs about the Newfoundland disaster mention Brown’s book as their inspiration.

I would like to recommend Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Fay Greene (2003). Although I have not heard that it has inspired any of the many songs about the 1958 Springhill disaster, I think it would if more people read it. It’s a meticulously researched book, and a gripping read. Greene found a bunch of recorded interviews with the survivors made not long after their rescue. They had been buried in the basement of the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library. Using these interviews, as well as interviews she conducted herself and complemented by archival research, she reconstructed the story leading up to the disaster, the experiences of the survivors underground as they waited and hoped to be rescued, and the aftermath (which is, if you’re not familiar with the story, almost as compelling as their underground lives).

For an inside view of the 1992 Westray explosion, I recommend Shaun Comish’s The Westray Tragedy: A Miner’s Story (1993). Comish obviously wasn’t a victim of the explosion that killed 26 miners, but he did work at the mine. It’s important to note that he presents one side of the story, but it’s a compelling account.

There are also numerous books that compile the stories of multiple tragedies, rather than focus on a single one. One that I think gives an excellent sense of the lives of miners, the dangers of mining, and the experiences of rescue workers is Rennie MacKenzie’s Blast! Cape Breton Coal Mine Disasters (2007).

Are there other disaster histories that you recommend?

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