- Living Literacies of the Mountain Woman
When searching for a book to review for our graduate seminar, I wanted something that dealt not only with the foundational content we were discussing in the course but also touched on content with which I could personally relate — for instance, gender issues and the female voice, or the first-generation college experience. My goal was to ask what the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s 1974 Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution meant for women in these particular circumstances. Katherine Kelleher Sohn’s monograph hits on these themes and more, with the added element of rural language dialects in the United States; she works with the literacy skills of female students and explores how their voices are transported from academia into the surrounding community of Kentucky’s mountain culture. Sohn shows these women acquiring academic discourse and using their education to communicate effectively beyond the college experience to defy negative stereotypes that outsiders place on Appalachians.
Sohn begins Whistlin’ and Crowin’ Women of Appalachia with an anecdote about a conversation she overhears in an elevator at the 1994 annual Conference on College Composition and Communication in Nashville in [End Page 397] which a few attendees mock a local waiter’s regional drawl. Whistlin’ and Crowin’ works against that kind of prejudice and cultural ignorance to reform the outdated mentality of the maxim, “Whistlin’ women and crowin’ hens, always come to no good ends” (9). As someone who was once an outsider to Appalachia, Sohn takes offense at the idea of the rural white “hillbilly” and turns her work with local Appalachian mountain women into a study of literacy’s effects on regional, nontraditional college students. She writes, “Living in Appalachia since 1975, I wondered what my adopted neighbors would say to those making fun of them. … They surely don’t want outsiders to tell jokes when those outsiders have no idea what they are talking about” (2). Sohn’s research is invaluable to scholarship for not only the field of literacy but also across multiple disciplines in that it showcases the various ways in which literacy branches out beyond academe and becomes part of everyday domestic routines, as part of business or career practice, or even part of building general confidence in students during and after their formal education.
Sohn’s book draws on her doctoral research at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The introduction provides an overview of the author’s motivation for pursuing this topic, the cultural context of the Appalachian region, and the research. Chapter 1 is devoted to her strategies and methodologies of researching the cases she presents later on. The second chapter tackles identity theory and details the cultural context within the Appalachian region, specifically identifying ways in which “voice” is heard — or, in many cases, not heard — in this environment. The following three chapters are three case studies on literacy practices of Appalachian women. Sohn then concludes with a chapter reflecting on her research and speculating on pedagogical concerns that may crop up in future classroom settings. Seven appendixes offer an ethnographic scrapbook that includes interview questions, recipes, and sample works from the students.
Victor Villanueva writes in his foreword to the book that this is “a tale of colors within whiteness” (xiii), and he offers an account of his wife’s Appalachian origins. He tells us that “Appalachian is a color” (xiv) and that the inhabitants of the region are frequently treated as racial stereotypes. Many often typecast, pigeonhole, or judge certain regional dialects as beneath the dignity of the white majority, automatically associating them with illiteracy. Sohn demonstrates in her interviews with three mountain women in chapters 3–5 “how they were using literacy in the workplace, home, and community” (9), verifying that we have a lot more to learn about how literacy impacts the everyday lives of the Appalachian region. Since Sohn advocates for cultural identity and validity, we can read Whistlin’ and Crowin’ in conjunction [End Page 398] with Villanueva’s Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color...