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What Were Their Dreams? Valleys of Hope and Pain: Canada's History by Wendy Morton

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Wendy Morton may investigate facts for a living, but she's certainly no pragmatist. Very much a dreamer, the poet from Sooke, British Columbia, has made some of her own dreams reality. Her poetry has gotten her out of a traffic ticket, earned her free flights (in exchange for reading/writing poetry for the other passengers), scored her a car (a PT Cruiser, courtesy of DaimlerChrysler), driven her to found Random Acts of Poetry and more.

Morton's day job as an insurance investigator pays the bills, but she sees a very real connection between the Private Eye and the Poet - both positions search for the kernel of truth at the core of things. Sponsored by AbeBooks and others, Morton has dedicated a lot of hard work, time and some crazy, creative ideas to making poetry more accessible, visible and fun.

Poet-of-the-Skies, Founder of Random Acts of Poetry and Private Eye - Wendy MortonMorton has published five books of poetry:  Private Eye (2001), Undercover (2003), ShadowCatcher (2005), Gumshoe (2007) and her most recent, What Were Their Dreams? Valleys of Hope and Pain: Canada's History (2009). Her memoir, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (2006) is a celebration of life, poetry and the unexpected.

What Were Their Dreams? came to pass by a chance connection. Morton was in Kelowna in 2007, enjoying some thrift store therapy, when she saw a thick book atop a pile being wheeled past by an employee. She grabbed it, and it turned out to be a 1922 edition of Wrigley's British Columbia Directory, which listed every city, town and settlement (many of which no longer exist) in B.C., along with their residents, and an (often poetic) description of the places.

Morton was scheduled to host an event called Forest Fest in Port Alberni, and after reading the Alberni section of the directory, wrote a poem for the Fest. Afterwards, Jean McIntosh, the director of the Alberni Valley Museum, approached Morton and asked whether she would contribute something for the 150th anniversary of the Alberni Valley in 2008. Morton agreed, and what resulted was an exhibit of 20 poems, inspired by archival photographs and journals, which were displayed at the museum for six months.

Inspired and touched by what she had learned, Morton wanted to know more, and met with many residents of the valley. In What Were Their Dreams? Morton explores the history of British Columbia's Port Alberni in the Alberni Valley, from the dreams of the gold rush, to the logging and development and the pulp mill, to the fishing, all on an economic rollercoaster. Some of the people she spoke with were survivors of the residential school system, and Morton came to understand for the first time how much had really been taken from the children forced into residential schools, and their families.

In Canada, residential schools were founded in the 19th century and forced aboriginal children to attend in an effort to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture and essentially erase their heritage. The last residential school did not officially close until 1996, long after it had come to light that the residential schools were rife with physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Morton wrote 15 more poems after speaking with Alberni residents. She wrote them in the first person, and in doing so felt she was able, on some level, to give voice to some of what had gone unsaid, by some of those who had gone unheard.

An image from What Were Their Dreams? Valleys of Hope and Pain: Canada's History by Wendy Morton
We took the train to Prince Rupert.
The ferry to Campbell River.
The bus to Port Alberni.
We came at night, thought
it was a hospital.
We were all strangers.
I scrubbed the pots,
scrubbed the floor,
scrubbed the stairs,
ironed the laundry.
I was quiet, I read. No one hit me.
One day, I heard yelling.
I hid, heard someone I knew fall down the stairs.
I never saw her again.
But the life before:
the gardens, game, fish, berries.
How well we lived.
Our family. Our language. Our life.

Wendy Morton's What Were Their Dreams? contains 35 poems - the original 20 from the exhibit and another 15 she wrote after meeting with residents of the valley. The poems reflect the voices of a community, divided or not - the immigrants and the dreams they brought with them, wives of husbands, sons of fathers, parents and children of the taken. Everyone is here, everyone has a voice. And even in the book's darkest corners, there is light. While one can scarcely imagine a topic more painful, more evil than the residential schools, the poems contain hope. There is sorrow, to be sure, but the pages offer real celebration as well, for the survivors, for the future.

JIMMYAn image from What Were Their Dreams? Valleys of Hope and Pain: Canada's History by Wendy Morton

I was raised in Nitnat,
carved my own toys.
We lived on fish, seafood, deer.
There was no such thing as money.
My grandfather rose me up.
Taught me.
At the school we washed the steps,
we washed the floor.
The man,
he did things to me.
I was sick.
My grandpa came,
took me out. I kept my language.
We lived in a house where the wind came in.
I watched him carve.
I made my first canoe at 14.
I learned to sing and dance
at the Potlatch.
My grandchildren know. They know.

Morton's word choice throughout is spare and matter-of-fact - there is little room for sentimentality. Nevertheless, What Were Their Dreams? is beautiful, humble, and above all genuine. When reading the words of each poem, it is impossible to not feel acutely that they were written by someone who cared, who wanted them to be heard. There can be no doubt - whether as a private investigator or a poet, Wendy Morton gets to the heart of the matter.

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