AJB Johnston’s review of #TheBlueTattoo in Atlantic Books Today:
“Steven Laffoley’s The Blue Tattoo (Pottersfield Press) is the first time this award-winning historian has turned to fiction. His focus is the Halifax Explosion.
“I asked him why he was drawn to the topic and with a novel of all things. He replied: ‘I think stories where characters face calamity, truly terrible events … provide readers a chance to explore their fear through narrative … Fiction allows for a deeper and more meaningful exploration of emotion.’
“With a number of books and films already out there on the Halifax Explosion, Laffoley seeks to tell a familiar story in a fresh
way. The arc of the novel rests on a love story between a woman and a man from widely separated social and economic classes. Their differing backgrounds allow the author to examine a wide range of topics, including the suffragette movement and how wars benefit or hurt people in different ways.
“Surprisingly, at least to me, there are stretches in The Blue Tattoo where the couple’s story is not front and centre. Instead, Laffoley offers other characters – some historical, some invented – whose stories convey the wider tale of how the devastation happened and how it killed, maimed, blinded and rendered homeless so many thousands. At times, some incidents read more like straight history than immersive fiction, but they communicate the context of the sweeping story the book presents.
“The Blue Tattoo ticks along at a brisk pace and keeps the reader’s interest all the way. It’s a big story that everyone should read. It deepens one’s appreciation for the parts of the city touched by the devastation of Dec. 6, 1917.”
The Blue Tattoo reaches the #1 spot on the Bestsellers List of Bookmark Halifax.
The Blue Tattoo – Steven Laffoley
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Sweetland – Michael Crummey
Back of the Turtle – Thomas King
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good – Jan Karon
The Paying Guests – Sara Waters
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
The Organized Mind – Daniel Levitin
The Most Dangerous Book – Kevin Birmingham
If This Isn’t Nice, What is ? – Kurt Vonnegut
Hard Choices – Hilary Clinton
Tragedy in the Commons – Alison Loat
Tales from Beyond the Tap – Randy Bachman
Strange Glory – Charles Marsh
A Spy Among Friends – Ben MacIntyre
A Place in the Country – W.G. Sebald
My Age of Anxiety – Scott Stossel
What I learned About Politics – Graham Steele
Hiking Trails of Mainland Nova Scotia – Michael Hynes
Journeys Through Eastern Old-Growth Forests – Jamie Simpson
Quest of the Folk – Ian McKay
A Lucky Life – Richard B. Goldbloom
Day Trips From Nova Scotia – Jon Tattrie
Nova Scotia Souvenir Book – David Towler
Wildflowers of Nova Scotia – Todd Boland
The Town That Died – Michael J. Bird
Nova Scotia – Tanya Lloyd Kyi
Order The Blue Tattoo by clicking on any one of the following:
In the Maritimes, copies will be sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore. And if you reside outside of the Maritimes, please ask your bookstore to order it through Nimbus Publishing above.
The new novel from Steven Laffoley…
From award-winning author Steven Laffoley comes a compelling tale of love and loss, despair and hope, based on real people and real events, that brings to life one of the most extraordinary stories of our time — The Halifax Explosion.1917. The Great War has given rise to unprecedented prosperity to staid, Victorian Halifax. It has also given rise to an explosive desire for change. Medical student and daughter of a prominent Halifax family, Elizabeth Beckett dreams of bringing equality to woman in an age when men alone control the world of work and politics. She fights for suffrage to give women a voice in the politics of war. At the same times, sugar refinery worker Danny Cohen dreams of leaving Halifax and a deadly war machine that he sees as only serving the wealthy. He fights to make the money he needs to help himself escape. When their lives collide, their dreams and their views of the world are challenged by the promise of love. Yet their different views on the world prove too explosive. They are torn apart by the collision of their disparate dreams. Elizabeth returns to her suffrage movement for women. Danny escapes to Boston for a better life.However, when two ships collide in Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917, and the greatest explosion the world had ever known is unleashed on the city, their eyes are opened to new truths. Elizabeth is swept up in the chaos that follows the Explosion and works courageously at a local hospital, overrun with the horribly injured, with dwindling medical supplies and worsening conditions, only to face a once-in-a-generation snowstorm that promises to take away whatever hope remains. Without fresh medical supplies, hundreds will soon die.
Meantime, desperate to return home, Danny hears of a medical relief train leaving Boston and conducted by Christopher H. Trueman, a man with with dark past, who promises to make Halifax in record time. Danny manages to make the train, only to face a snowstorm that stops the train in its tracks. Without action and personal sacrifice, the train may never make it.
Filled with a cast of unforgettable characters — from Boston mayor James Michael Curley to Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer — The Blue Tattoo tells the sweeping story of the lives caught up in the unbelievable horror of The Halifax Explosion.
Click here to order your copy of “The Blue Tattoo”: http://www.amazon.ca/Blue-Tattoo-Novel-Steven-Laffoley/dp/1897426607/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402432416&sr=8-1&keywords=steven+laffoley
Langford, who fought from 1902 to 1926 in every weight class from lightweight to heavyweight, is widely regarded as the greatest boxer to have never held a world title, and he may have been the best his sport has ever seen.
The overt racism of his era allowed heavyweight champs to reject his title challenges out of hand, but his skill also worked against his championship quest. Some white boxers would fight a black man — but not one who could hit like Langford. In 1923, Jack Dempsey’s manager turned down a challenge from a visually-impaired, 40-year-old Langford, saying “we were looking for someone easier.”
In Pulling No Punches, Steven Laffoley tells a classic story — young man overcomes racism and poverty to become a contender — in an unusual way, but he tells it well. Laffoley fashions this book as a memoir by Langford that plays out as the old, blind boxer recalls his career while listening to a radio broadcast of the 1955 world welterweight title fight between Carmen Basilio and Tony DeMarco. While that scene is fabricated, it’s a justifiable contrivance that allows Laffoley to tie together the sketchy details of what’s known about a man who disappeared from public view nine decades ago. The author assures us that all words attributed to Langford are taken from newspaper reports, interviews or other solid sources.
This is primarily the story of Langford the boxer, not so much of Sam the man. But Laffoley is able to show us something of his early days, of a beloved mother who died when he was young and a violent father who beat him. We learn that Langford worked in the lumber camps of Nova Scotia and New England and knew some hungry days while trying to get established in Boston. We also get a few glimpses of his married life.
Laffoley skilfully describes Langford’s key fights and populates the book with a lively gallery of the Runyonesque rogues and battle-scarred warriors he crossed paths with in the always murky world of boxing.
Langford was a marvellous talent with some bad luck. Early in his career, in 1903, he beat lightweight champ Joe Gans but couldn’t claim the title because he missed the weight limit by ounces. The next year, he fought welterweight champion Barbados Joe Walcott to a draw in a fight that most reporters said Langford clearly won.
And misfortune caused him to miss a lucrative payday against a big-name white boxer after a decision in 1910 over the great middleweight Stanley Ketchel created a lot of interest in a planned rematch fated to never happen. In that case, the bad luck was Ketchel’s because, in the immortal words of John Lardner: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
Langford’s reminiscences propel this story and they are haunted by an immense spectre. That would be the Galveston Giant, Jack Johnson, who outweighed a young Langford by about 40 pounds when he beat him in a 15-round decision in 1906. Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champ two years later but repeatedly refused to offer Langford a title shot during his seven-year reign. In fact, the only black man Johnson defended his title against was a palooka regularly beaten by Langford and other top black fighters such as Joe Jeanette and Sam McVea.
The biggest, and unanswerable, question about Langford’s career is whether he could have beaten Johnson in a title fight. We can only speculate but Langford by this time was in his prime, a heavier and stronger fighter than in their first encounter and he was also five years younger and quicker than Johnson, who was 37 when he lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915.
After Willard’s victory, the colour barrier was bolted back in place and it would be two decades before a black man would again fight for the heavyweight title.
Denied a shot at boxing’s richest prize, Langford fought too often for relatively small purses. In later years, he suffered damage to his optic nerve but kept boxing and even won the Mexican heavyweight title when all he could see was shadows. But, unable to defend properly, he suffered some terrible beatings before he fought his last fight in 1926.
Boxing is a brutal sport that devours many of its greatest stars and, as Laffoley shows, Langford fell on grim times. He lived for years in poverty and blindness until a sportswriter tracked him down in Harlem in 1944 and wrote about his plight. Offers to help poured in and a trust fund was created that paid for surgery that restored some vision for a while and gave him a small monthly stipend, allowing him to live in a bit of meagre comfort until his death in 1956.
Ed MacLellan is an editor with The Chronicle Herald.
There is a remarkable story in Sam Langford, the Weymouth Fall, NS, pugilist who lived and fought in the breaking years of the 20th century. It’s a story about ferocious ambition, extraordinary skill (none other than Jack Dempsey called him “the greatest”), winning and losing.
Fortunately, Steven Laffoley tells the tale well. In the hand of a lesser writer, this could have been a sentimental journey — fraught with narrative hand-wringing and cliched conclusions about the boxer’s metaphorical locations in the violent Zeitgeist of modern times. Instead this is a beautifully crafted, exquisitely nuanced account of one man’s journey through life, brimming with the kind of truth that only the ring, an opponent and the bell produce.
As Laffoley reports from others, ‘Langford had the fatal gift of being too good, and that’s why he often had to give away weight in the early days.’ Whatever weight the protagonist shed in life, his author has more than returned, in the broad shadow of this fine account.
By Alec Bruce
(Atlantic Books Today)