Fighting Prosaic Messages addresses painful issues in American education. The first section of Part I begins the story of Rose, a Sicilian immigrant, and traces the lives of three generations of her family in and out of school (see Figure 1). The first three chapters of the “Rose Speaks” trilogy concerns the conflicts that she faces adjusting to new rules and social institutions. Her responses to the challenges posed by her new country illuminate her critical intelligence and serve as the basis for conversations with activists like Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who fought passionately to give voices to the illiterate. In the second section of Part I,the story shifts from the metaphorical to Rose’s son’s failings in Depression-era schools and to her grandson’s search for self-expression. Part I ends with a detailed account of how schooling not only failed to acknowledge her great-grandson’s self-taught literacies but nearly stifled them altogether. The essays in Part II expand the understanding of the human side of failure.
Although the book opens lyrically, it quickly manifests the sense of impending doom that accompanies an industrial metaphor out of control. Characters, however strong-willed, are defenseless. Dialogues with real and imagined characters remind readers that the right to voice one’s thoughts is crucial for any viable notion of democracy and should lead to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. Our stories bearwitness to the failure of schools to espouse these goals.
Readers learn the fate of Rose and her family, who struggle with assimilation, poverty, language barriers, and meager parental education. Anyone who has ever suffered injustice will find much with which to sympathize in this book. The issues that the essays address—the political extensities of literacy, conformity vs. self-expression, and understanding literacy as a response to moral crises—are empowering. Even so, the obstructions that Rose and her family face as they seek education—stereotyping, superficiality, fixed answers—persist in schools to this day, hence the need to understand the cultural and historical forces that gave rise to and still perpetuate these barriers.
Despite the fact that Fighting Prosaic Messageshas many subtexts—immigration, intellectual history, intergenerational contexts—its primary goal is to affirm a vision of literacy as truth telling. I hope that its message will appeal to anyone who educates or seeks education.
—Henry C. Amoroso Jr.