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  • Title: The Wake: The Deadly Legacy of a Newfoundland Tsunami
  • Author: Linden MacIntyre
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 371

On Feb. 15, 1965, a retired miner named Rennie Slaney sat down at his kitchen table in St. Lawrence, Nfld., and typed out a five-page, single-spaced document that, as Linden MacIntyre writes in The Wake, would reverberate “across the land.” The 58-year-old Slaney, who could no longer work because of severe health problems, laid out what had happened in recent decades to the people of his small community on the Burin Peninsula.

Addressing his testimonial to a special committee appointed by the government of Premier Joey Smallwood, Slaney mentioned a miner who died in hospital that very day, while another lay nearby, “just awaiting his time.” Slaney himself, having worked in the mines for 23 years, was suffering from chronic bronchitis, obstructive emphysema, infective asthma and “a usually terminal heart disease caused by lung failure.” The man could step forward because, MacIntyre tells us, he had nothing left to lose: “His lungs were shot.”

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Hundreds of women and children were left destitute after the tsunami washed away houses and killed 28 people.Courtesy of St. Lawrence Miners’ Museum

Having toiled mostly as a foreman, Slaney described how each day, after surfacing from the smoke-and-dust-filled underground mine, he and the other men “would throw up for as long as an hour and then some. After a while the throw-up would be mostly blood.”

The ensuing deaths, Slaney wrote, left hundreds of children and women destitute, struggling to survive on minuscule government handouts. Yet, the most powerful part of the report came at the end, when Slaney presented a list of 91 men he had known personally who were now dead of mining accidents or illnesses. He cited another 20 who were so sick they could no longer work.

Slaney’s testimonial made headlines. It led eventually to amelioration, and MacIntyre tracks that. But The Wake is most remarkable for the long, slow buildup to this moment, as the author shows how the mining debacle evolved directly out of an earthquake and a tsunami that occurred decades before – on Nov. 18, 1929.

The main narrative begins on that day with a vivid evocation of white-water waves three-stories high crashing over the Newfoundland coast at 100 kilometres an hour. The tsunami washed away houses, killed 28 people and rendered hundreds more homeless. Not incidentally, that cataclysm also wiped out the cod fishery, the alpha and omega of the local economy.

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Some survivors moved to St. John’s or Halifax.Dr. Harris Mosdell/Courtesy of Public Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL)

Survivors awoke to widespread devastation. Some people abandoned the only home they had ever known and moved into St. John’s or Halifax. But with the fish gone, those who wanted to stay were more than willing to listen when an American engineer named Walter Siebert turned up talking about creating a mining company.

Siebert explained that initially, he could not afford to pay men to work. But if they did so voluntarily, he would make things right down the road. And so, through the Great Depression of the 1930s, when options were precious few, the men worked for nothing or a pittance. Siebert could not afford to create the ventilation shafts requisite to any proper mining operation, but the miners worked any way, enduring appalling conditions so they could feed their families.

MacIntyre does more than relate this powerful story. An award-winning novelist, he raises the book to the level of literature, first by drawing on exhaustive research to produce vivid, sometimes unpleasant detail. For example, he interviewed women who laboured to ease the passing of the dying – nurses, he writes, who had a far deeper understanding of the slow-motion catastrophe unfolding on the Burin Peninsula than any scientists, lawyers or politicians.

One of them, Rennie Slaney’s granddaughter, Lisa Loder, told him that those who had heart attacks were the lucky ones. “I witnessed a good many poor souls,” she said, “when their lungs totally collapsed and they’d bleed out and basically choke on their own blood.”

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MacIntyre’s father worked in one of the underground mines later found to be radioactive.Courtesy of St. Lawrence Miners’ Museum

While en route to creating literature, MacIntyre takes a risk that pays off: He incorporates four italicized sections he calls “conversations with the dead.” With this daring stroke, he brings himself into the narrative, introducing the personal presence that is widely regarded as the hallmark of literary non-fiction. This move is only possible because MacIntyre’s long-dead father, his main interlocutor in these sections, worked in one of the underground mines later found to be radioactive.

MacIntyre ends on a cautiously optimistic note because “the memory of bad luck, bad faith, bad management and bad government should serve the future well.” The key word is “cautiously” because “the future, like the past, will also be determined by necessity.”

As for Rennie Slaney, he was 62 when, four years after typing out his testimonial, he died luckily of a heart attack. An autopsy “revealed deep, debilitating silicosis in his lungs.” MacIntyre tells us: “Rennie Slaney, like so many of his friends and neighbours, died because of how he’d earned his living.”

This book ensures that his death was not in vain.

Ken McGoogan’s new book is Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada.

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