History Non-fiction News , Reviews ,
Books By Heart: The Volunteers, and how Halifax women won WWII
Books by Heart is a new initiative to help humanize Nova Scotia hospital care, with a curated collection of ebooks and audiobooks available for free to patients, families, and staff. The reading platform and program are being tested out first at the University of King’s College, and we’ve enlisted some King’s student reviewers to help promote more engagement with the collection within the King’s community. Find out more about the project (and read this book for free if you’re a member of the King’s community!) at BooksByHeartKings.ca
By Jeremy Hull
Lezlie Lowe admits that it is a deliberately provocative title. The Volunteers: How Halifax Women Won the Second World War illustrates the scope of the contribution made by women in Canada, and around the world, during one of the greatest crises of the 20th century.
“Halifax women stepped up when the government wouldn’t or couldn’t,” Lowe said.
On April 2, Lowe partnered with fellow Atlantic Canadian author Rebecca Rose (author of Before the Parade: A History of Halifax’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Communities, 1972-1984) for a walking tour to promote their titles, which are available as part of the Books by Heart program.
To appreciate the contribution of the women who helped to run a city that was packed with service members, she says you need to understand the strategic importance of Halifax to the Allies during the Second World War between 1939 and 1945.
“It was the launching point for the war in the Atlantic,” Lowe said.
The idea for The Volunteers came to Lowe from the chair of the Halifax Women’s History Society, Fran Gregor. Lowe also found a personal connection to the story. Her grandparents met in Halifax during the war when her grandfather landed in the city. It was all the stories, including theirs, that made her understand the scope of what happened in Halifax during the war.
“Over one million service members landed in what was then a tiny city,” Lowe said. “The impact of the war was greater in Halifax than really anywhere else.”
Lowe said that the problems produced by the influx of soldiers are relatable today. During the tour, Lowe pointed out the tenement buildings where service members hoped to land a bed for the night, which were in short supply.
“Six hundred to 800 service members were without a bed on any given night,” Lowe said.
During the tour, Lowe talked about the disruption caused by the sheer numbers of service members in the city before or after deployments. Her research revealed an astounding lack of support.
“Halifax didn’t ask to be the staging point for the war,” Lowe said. “I really did not appreciate how poorly the federal government supported the city.”
Instead, some women of Halifax to stepped up and provided for the city and the soldiers, who would support the war from a harbour on the Atlantic coast before deploying into combat zones in Europe and elsewhere.
Lowe laughed when asked how the women who “won the war” felt about their contribution.
“None of them thought what they did was extraordinary. They all said, ‘Yeah, yeah, it was no big deal.’”
Lowe interviewed six women for The Volunteers and spent hours pouring through the Nova Scotia Archives. She said she loves digging through archival documents.
“I’d never written anything of substance dealing with history,” Lowe said. “The detail is so painstaking to find, but that’s what really makes the research sing.”
Lowe was thrilled by the turnout to support The Volunteers and Before the Parade, Rose’s history of Halifax’s sexually marginalized communities, which she recommends to anybody interested in the untold history of the Atlantic.
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