A satisfying exploration of literacy within a social context, Sohn’s book will no doubt delight literacy and regional scholars alike. Unlike other studies that focus only on individual literacy narratives, Sohn investigates the complex situations surrounding and contributing to the literacy and educational histories of three Appalachian women. Through detailed case studies, Sohn explores how these women overturn and overcome the sexist adage, “Whistlin’ women and crowin’ hens, always come to no good ends” (9). Despite difficult obstacles ranging from spousal abuse to inadequate academic preparation, each of the women sought post-secondary education and ultimately earned a degree resulting in economic or personal satisfaction, and often both. Although this book is part of the Studies in Writing & Rhetoric series, any reader interested in literacy, Appalachia, or gender studies will find inspiration in the stories of these women.
Sohn’s thorough research will also be helpful to anyone wanting to broaden his or her understanding in the field of literacy studies. The Works Cited section contains a plethora of secondary sources. Echoing Shirley Brice Heath’s seminal text, Ways with Words (1983), Sohn solidly grounds her work within the field of New Literacy Studies (NLS). Unlike earlier literacy texts in which authors focused on mainly the technical skills of reading and writing (such as the work of Walter Ong, Jack Goody, and Ian Watt), Sohn considers the social situations surrounding literacy, and in doing so her work finds placement among other established NLS scholars like James Paul Gee, Deborah Brandt, and Brian Street.
Similar to the approach David Barton and Mary Hamilton take in Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community (1998), a study about the literary practices of individuals in Lancaster, England, Sohn localizes her study to illuminate the complexity of three literacy narratives. In the chapter explaining her methodology, Sohn writes that from lists of her own former students, she sought non-traditional “native-born Appalachian women who were the first generation in their families to attend college” (10). Sohn’s interest in non-traditional students stems from her own educational path: earning a second master’s degree in rhetoric and composition at the age of 42 and completing her doctorate at the age of 53, Sohn understands the art of juggling an already busy life with the demands of academia. Her methods for this study including selecting eight women for preliminary interviews and further narrowing her participant pool to three women. Sohn explains that in order to present a diverse sampling of participants, she consciously chose women with varying academic success, as well as both employed and unemployed women. She also admits selection based partially on her own personal interest in the women’s stories (11).
In addition to adequately explaining her participant selections process, Sohn carefully described her own position as both researcher and outsider. Such an acute awareness of her position as Other points to Sohn’s high ethical standards as a scholar, and readers will find a constant level of respect, accuracy, and awareness throughout the study. Early in her introduction she describes Appalachian people’s need “to be respected for who they are and for what they bring to the multicultural table,” but she is also careful to point out that “defining any region like central Appalachia is difficult because no place is monolithic” (2, 3). Perhaps even more impressive, when describing her position as researcher and scholar, Sohn openly writes, “The most apparent bias in this study…is my positionality as an outsider. Though my husband and I have lived in the region since 1975 and I would label myself as an acculturated outsider, I am still aware of how misrepresented Appalachia has been” (13). In refusing to fall victim to negative stereotypes of the Appalachian region and its people, Sohn deserves a heartfelt thank you from any Appalachian person who has ever felt the sting of a derogatory remark or insinuation based on his or her mountain heritage. Despite her connections to the women in her study, Sohn never loses sight of her role as observer and learner, as when she reflects in her conclusion, “More than any other activity, these interviews with my former students enabled me to examine my prejudices and improve me teaching” (161).
Sohn’s book emerges are an important addition to the growing amount of scholarship that considers interactions between literacy and Appalachia. Kim Donehower’s work, for example, investigates beliefs about literacy in a Southern Appalachian community, and Sohn’s work complements that research by exploring long-term effects of literacy on real women’s lives. Similarly, Sohn’s study will be of interest to readers who appreciate Juliet Merrifield’s Appalachian literacy profiles in Life at the Margins: Literacy, Language, and Technology in Everyday Life (1997). However, unlike Merrifield’s book, with questions the assumed economic gains tied to literacy, Sohn explains that for most of the women of her study, a college degree does, in fact, increase their income, as well as self esteem. Ultimately, Sohn’s case studies present a hopeful outcome for the future, which parallels Victoria Purcell-Gates’ realistic hope for Jenny (an urban-Appalachian woman once unable to read) in Other People’s Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy (1997).
Sohn’s study also considers the potential sacrifices necessitated by the pursuit of post-secondary education. One of her first interviewees, Mary, admits that she worries about losing her common sense as a result of college (24). Sohn explains that some of her Appalachian students resist the homogenization of their native dialect, fearing “get[ting] about their raisings” (35). Yet in staying true to her goal of presenting a balanced view of how these women continue to use the skills they learned and developed in college, Sohn reports, “Going to college assisted the women in the Preston County study to become somebody, to make their voices heard” (38). She asserts that the women’s “acquisition of academic literacy did not destroy family or community” (44). Perhaps Sohn’s recording of Jean’s comment best explains the benefits of college: “I have the confidence now to do more than I ever thought possible because of college. I will keep learning as long as I have breath in me” (118).
After these women graduated from college, all of them chose to remain in Eastern Kentucky, despite a difficult job market. Aware that some readers may question the logic of such a decision, Sohn explains the centrality of home in these women’s lives in her chapter entitled “Theory and Context: Silence, Voice, and Identity.” This welcome treatment of the subject will be especially helpful for readers unfamiliar with the importance of place to many Appalachians. In keeping with an audience-inclusive approach, each of Sohn’s participant-based chapters follows the same format: a brief introduction to the participant, direct quotations from the particular woman, and Sohn’s scholarly commentary.
With a conclusion rich in secondary sources and pedagogical reflections, Sohn further elaborates on the critical foregrounding of her project. And like any good ethnographer, she includes several appendices ranging from interview questions to college-level participant writing samples. For literacy scholars, those interested in all-things-Appalachian, and anyone seeking educational inspiration, these whistlin’ and crowin’ women are certainly worth reading about.
Erica Abrams Locklear
Louisiana State University