Literacy in Times of Crisis: Practices and Perspectives is an ambitious book. Each chapter in the major, middle section is a report from a research project into what happens to and through literacy in times of crisis. The range of crises being studied is impressive: natural disasters, homelessness, teenagers facing motherhood, immigrants caught between cultural assumptions about marriage, children enduring custody battles, and others. Despite the wide divergence in situations explored, all contributors share a belief in literacy as social action through which people shape and reshape their identities and create the structures through which life becomes comprehensible. This view of literacy is hardly new. But by asking what happens when crises or unexpected events “overwhelm the systems that make things work” (1), editor Laurie MacGillivray and her contributors challenge and expand previous understandings of the relationships between individual literacy and cultural identity. They also address the relationships between individual identities and the social structures that make purposeful action possible. Framing their accounts are statements by three teachers, who first anticipate and then reflect on the major chapters in terms of their teaching and, in one case, larger community concerns. These final reflections help readers make useful connections among at least some of the great range of perspectives presented earlier; they also point beyond the book by providing a glimpse of the research and theorizing still needed if dedicated professionals are to learn how to serve their communities through the practices of literacy in times of crisis.
Some of the book’s chapters testify very particularly to the role of literacy in individual circumstances; others work to help readers better understand literacy as a force central to the life of a community. April Whatley Bedford’s overture chapter does both. She describes having been evacuated from New Orleans in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina, something which left her separated from everyone she knew and [End Page 149] desperate for information. Although she had never used blogs and had only a vague idea of what they were, she went on-line, found several, and became an avid reader and contributor, relaying what she knew of the storm and learning from others. Significantly, she writes that immediately after being evacuated she had bought a journal, thinking that she would record her thoughts and feelings—as had been her habit for much of her life. This time, though, she found she had no desire to write anything that did not contain information about the storm. She retired the journal and turned to the blogs and emails that filled her days, entering and helping to sustain a virtual community by writing messages that friends later told her were among the most powerful texts she had ever composed.
Similar connections among literacy, identity, and community are obvious in Kara L. Lycke’s chapter reporting research she had completed at a center for teenage mothers. Concentrating on two of the many cases she had studied and relying on vivid quotations to help us imagine those two young women, Lycke presents the substantial changes in lifestyle and long-range goals occasioned by motherhood and the literacy practices that enabled and expanded those changes. For a young woman from a highly supportive family, motherhood meant more serious reading and renewed concentration on school work with an ever tighter focus on the career that had always been her goal. For a young woman with a weaker family structure, motherhood meant putting aside reading practices she had once enjoyed (romance novels, mystery stories, love poetry) and turning instead to the online and print resources she was coming to know through a school program for unwed mothers. Lacking what Deborah Brandt calls “sponsors of literacy” in her immediate environment, the young woman found ways to create her own contexts for responsible motherhood. Like many of the book’s chapters, Lycke’s is valuable both for expanding research on its particular topic—the potential maturity of teenage, single mothers—and for expanding our understanding of the cultural power of literacy.
A similar if more complex...