History Slam Episode 175: The Burden of Gravity

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By Sean Graham

In the 9 years we’ve being doing the History Slam, I’ve constantly been amazed by the variety of ways in which public historians tell the stories of the past. There are so many unique and powerful storytelling techniques that make great use of historical research. One such example is the new book The Burden of Gravity by Shannon McConnell. The book tells the story of the students at New Westminster’s Woodlands School in the 1960s and 1970s. The school originally opened in 1876 as a ‘lunatic asylum’, but later became a custodial school for children with disabilities. During this time, there were reports of neglect and abuse that went unaddressed. Based on archival research, McConnell uses poetry to share the students’ stories. As poetry of witness, the book employs a first person perspective without using and takes readers through the students’ emotions while also challenging the audience to consider how institutions like the Woodlands School are remembered.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Shannon McConnell about the book. We talk about Shannon’s background in writing, researching the story, and why poetry is an effective storytelling technique for historians. We also talk about the history of the Woodlands School, how the students were treated, and the challenges of writing from the students’ perspectives.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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