Book review by Angela Perez
Victoria Purcell-Gates – Other People’s Words
Purcell-Gates’ book, Other People’s Words, is an anthropological study of two subjects’ experience with the phenomenon of literacy in American culture. Exploring literacy as a cultural act, this ethnographic study espouses a sociocultural theory of learning in which all cognitive abilities are valued equally. For Purcell-Gates, emergent literacy is not just part of a school curriculum, it is a complex activity that allows young children to make sense of literacy instruction. Although Americans live in a print-rich society, our comprehension of the written word as a meaningful and useful code for communication is a cultural act that is not a given if there are print deficits in early home life.
The main subjects of the book are an illiterate mother, Jenny, and her young illiterate son, Donny. Both are described as poor, white, urban Appalachians. The book details how Purcell-Gates, as a university researcher and professor of literacy education, improved both subjects ability to read and write, but also to understand the value and purpose of literacy. The author goes to great pains to explain Appalachians as a minority group and why this lower-caste cultural group does not necessarily value literacy. Jenny appears to understand literacy’s functional role but has developed ways around the need to read and write in order to successfully maneuver daily life, maintaining a home, and raising a child in a city. Purcell-Gates shares numerous engaging examples demonstrating that Donny has absolutely no conception of the functional role of print in daily life. Initially, he has absolutely no interest in learning how to read or write because for him, neither action has any relevance to his cultural experience. For Donny, words are meaningless background noise signifying nothing of importance or worth noting. He does not understand literacy as relevant to communicating because reading and writing are virtually non-existent in his home.
The book’s main strength is in the highly engrossing and vivid vignettes Purcell-Gates uses to explain her points about the notion of literacy as a cultural concept with a functional role. For example, she asks Donny to write a book explaining how to make a kite (an activity he thoroughly enjoys):
“ ‘Why?,’ he gently explained to me, ‘I’ll just show them how to make it.’
Taking this opportunity to demonstrate the value of written language over oral, I replied, ‘Well, you may not be here when someone…wants to make the kite.‘
‘Then, I’ll show you, and you can show them,’ he concluded. Skills such as making a kite, were acquired through personal experience, demonstration, and oral explanation in Donny’s world. Print played no part.” (Purcell-Gates, 60).
Purcell-Gates explains that her work with Donny still initially could not help him “catch up” in school. American schools operate on the premise that children begin school with at least a conceptual understanding of written language and its role in American culture. As the book progresses, the reader discovers that literacy is not necessarily an activity conveyed in all homes and schools should not assume such conveyance.
One of the weaknesses of the book is that Purcell-Gates often comes across as the benevolent benefactor to her two subjects. Her fondness for her subjects’ quaint Appalachian ways often reads as condescending. There are several moments throughout the book when it is painfully obvious this anthropological study was conducted by a white, Berkley-educated, upper-middle class woman. She waxes poetically about her subjects’ ability to fix their own cars and paint their own homes compared to her own “relative helplessness” (27). As a member of an elite cultural group, the professor does not thoroughly explore her role as a representative of a privileged capitalist community that orders American society via the very deficit explanations she eschews.
On a personal level, I understood the subjects’ dilemma of enculturation in discourses that are not privileged. Although I was exposed to a rich variety of reading and writing materials as a child, my accent, idioms, and colloquialisms were not appreciated in undergraduate and graduate education. My experiences with language at home and in formal education could not be reconciled and I had to choose the latter in order to be successful academically and professionally.
During my interview for acceptance into Duke University’s graduate school, one of the professors on the committee exclaimed, “I have to say, I can already imagine your name and picture on the book jacket for your first Southern novel.” I was not flattered. I was embarrassed. I took the comment to mean I was already marked as using language more appropriate to a colorful fiction novel than to academic research (I wondered how William Faulkner would have responded). After reading this book, I was able to apply Purcell-Gates’ sociocultural theories of learning to my own personal experiences to make sense of my own struggles with being from a poor, uneducated family. It was only until much later, after many years of struggling with my identity, that I came to understand my cultural experience as absolutely equal. In Purcell Gates’ book, my desire to apply this form of social justice in my own classroom finds form, function, and foundation.
Purcell-Gates, V. (2003). Other people’s words: The cycle of low literacy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.