The Next Chapter

Why Linden MacIntyre wrote about a 1920s natural disaster in Newfoundland that changed the region forever

The author and journalist spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing nonfiction book The Wake.
The Wake is a nonfiction book by Linden MacIntyre. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)
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Linden MacIntyre is an author of bestselling novels — including The Long StretchThe Only Café and 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner The Bishop's Man — and was the longtime co-host of CBC's award-winning investigative documentary program The Fifth Estate. 

Though raised in Nova Scotia, he was born near a small village called St. Lawrence, a Newfoundland community that was almost completely wiped out by a tsunami in 1929. Twenty-eight people died in that tsunami and hundreds more were injured or left homeless.

MacIntyre spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Wake.

In a flash

"This is an inherently visceral Newfoundland story. In 1929, an earthquake hit the St. Lawrence area — but it absolutely paled in comparison to the tsunami waves that hit a few hours later. 

This is an inherently visceral Newfoundland story. In 1929, an earthquake hit the St. Lawrence area — but it absolutely paled in comparison to the tsunami waves that hit a few hours later.- Linden MacIntyre

"There were about 40 communities spread out along the bottom of the Burin Peninsula and all of a sudden they started noticing, independently of one another, that the harbours were going dry and they could see at the bottom of the bay. 

"Shortly after that phenomenon, this wall of water came roaring down these bays, inlets and harbours. It just scoured the coastline. All these were fishing villages, where people had their wharves, their houses and their fishing stages or flakes that were close to the water.

"These things went in a flash. During the day there were several waves and 27 people died. Some people also became sick and others became terrified for the rest of their lives."

Hard times for all

"This natural disaster came on the eve of the collapse of democracy in Newfoundland and on the eve of the Great Depression that hammered the Western world. And it all happened a few years after the First World War which had wiped out a generation of young Newfoundlanders.

"The tsunami caused or certainly coincided with a disastrous collapse of the cod fishery, which these communities were dependent on. In the wake of the tsunami, many Newfoundlanders had no shelter and they certainly had no work. Newfoundland at the time had a lot of PTSD as a result."

In the wake of the tsunami, many Newfoundlanders had no shelter and they certainly had no work. Newfoundland at the time had a lot of PTSD as a result.​​​​- Linden MacIntrye

False Salvation

"Into the middle of this comes a guy who promises salvation. He's a New York accountant named Walter Seibert. He owned some rights for fluorspar — a mineral essential for steelmaking — in the region. He presented the people of St. Lawrence with an opportunity: if they can dig up the fluorspar, and it passes inspection, they will be paid for it. The citizens had few options and agreed. 

"The miners that ended up working in these dirty, dusty and unregulated conditions were poorly compensated for their labour. Many also developed debilitating diseases such as silicosis and died years later."

Linden MacIntyre's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article stated the year of the tsunami was 1928. This has been corrected to 1929.
    Nov 03, 2019 2:00 AM ET

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