The fire at the men’s residence at Mt. A in 1941 had lasting impacts on the lives of community members, students, and families. Renée Belliveau tells a fictionalized account of the story of that dreadful night in her new novel, The Sound of Fire.
The online book launch began with a slideshow displaying news coverage and photos of the fire from 1941. There were also quotes from those affected by the fire as well as some history of the residence and photos of it over time. Poignant snapshots of men enjoying residence life before the fire happened slid by as jazz music played in the background.
Belliveau, currently the acting archivist at Mt. A, read the first chapter of her book, written in first person from the perspective of the fire. Her description of Sackville is beautiful and somehow carries nostalgia for a time I have no connection to.
At the time the fire started, there were 200 students and 25 guests from the Royal Canadian Air Force in the residence. Belliveau believes that it was a miracle that most of them survived; there were four deaths, all of them students, one of which happened after the person had been hospitalized for a few days.
Belliveau first learned the impacts of the event while looking through archives in 2018. She read and listened to fragmented pieces of archives about the fire over time before she decided she wanted to write about it; that is why each chapter of her book is a different person’s experience of the fire. Because she already knew so much about the event due to personal interest, she planned and wrote some of the first drafts of the book before going back to the archives to do specific research. Belliveau said that she did not hear the fire’s voice until she was nearing the end of the first draft of her book but that it became the core voice of the story.
Her characters are based on real people, most inspired by unique, individual experiences and some by a collective of experiences. She focused mostly on writing about the students: “Their entire university experience would have been shattered by this event,” she commented sadly.
Parts of her book are from the perspective of the university president at the time. With the recent loss of his son in the war, the loss of life on his campus was even more difficult. In Trueman’s chapter, Belliveau asks her readers to imagine what it must have felt like to tell the students’ parents about this tragedy.
It was officially determined that the fire was started accidentally; the flames rose quickly because the building was old and the fire had started near the stairwell. Belliveau says this is “open to interpretation” but remains unconvinced. Some people believed that the fire was an enemy attack because of the ongoing war and the recent attack on Pearl Harbour.
When asked who her favourite character was to write, Belliveau answered that it was Lilian because she sees through a child’s eyes. Lilian “brings levity to the book, a kind of pause,” Belliveau explained. She added that Richard, the brother of one of the victims in her book, was a character she related to because her father passed away when she was a teenager, so she drew on her own grief to write from his perspective.
Belliveau is proud to “act as a keeper” of history with “all its joy and sorrow” and to “carry that torch forward.” She proclaimed that her “lofty aim” with this book was to “[bring] history to life.” She is now working on a novel set during and after the first World War in which one chapter focuses on the influenza epidemic that devastated the Acadian community in 1918.