by Josie Laird
A Celebration of Literacy
Sharon is a 45-year-old gym bunny. She works part time in a grocery store and lives modestly. She was widowed 9 years ago and has 2 adult children – a dream daughter, Emma, and a P-addict son, Finn, and a 2-year-old granddaughter (her son’s child) whom she hardly ever sees.
Tying all her life together is Sharon’s secret. Her late husband knew it and teased her unkindly. Her daughter knows and helps her mother to cope. And although she denies it, Sharon is smart. She has tried and true coping mechanisms and regularly picks up new ones.
One day, on the footpath opposite the grocery shop, Sharon sees a very grubby, abandoned child. She rescues the little girl and realises to her horror that this poor tot is her granddaughter, Mia.
In the weeks ahead, as Sharon applies to be Mia’s guardian and negotiates meetings with social workers and court hearings, she comes to accept that she needs to bring her secret out into the open and deal with it.
If you could read these 180 words as easily as I could write them, it’s possibly hard to imagine the full impact on everyday life that Sharon’s secret has on hers. It’s as if she’s in a cage in the middle of life teeming all around her, but unable to fully participate. Sharon is illiterate. She can’t read, write coherently, or tell the time. The list of other things that she can’t do because of this is daunting.
Once the decision is made and Sharon faces her demon, every chapter is a celebration of the power of literacy.
The Gift of Words isn’t set in late-19th century New Zealand or a third world country: it is set in Waiuku, South Auckland, in our time – the final action takes place in 2019.
Josie Laird’s style is down-to-earth and totally engaging. In Sharon she has created someone we want to see succeed. Even if illiteracy is unimaginable for the reader, Sharon’s innate goodness and grit involve us in her journey and take us inside her head.
An insight for me was when Sharon tells her Adult Literacy tutor that she can read the numbers on a digital watch but she didn’t know there were 60 seconds in a minute. She has no understanding for example of 5.40 being five minutes short of a quarter to 6.
Sharon’s literacy challenge is only a part of The Gift of Words. Along with the joy that Mia brings her, she is challenged by Mia’s maternal grandparents and conflicted in her relationship with Finn as he sinks further into addiction along with Mia’s mother.
The Gift of Words offers encouragement and inspiration beyond acquiring literacy. With Sharon, Josie Laird introduces her readers to Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Tough Love and Tuwhero Trust (support for families of P addicts). The Gift of Words is clearly written from the heart and is extremely thought provoking.
As a child Sharon slipped through the cracks at school. If reading The Gift of Words prevents one more adult like her from being held back by illiteracy; one more adult from being unable to read a child its bedtime story; one more grandparent from struggling alone with a grandchild or one more P addict family member from losing hope, I’m sure Laird will be well pleased.
The Gift of Words is confronting but ultimately heart-warming, and very readable. I recommend it in particular to anyone who needs to know more about these real and challenging issues.
Josie Laird wrote the first draft of The Gift of Words during the 2019 NaNoWriMo last November and is certainly to be congratulated on meeting the challenge so well. Although begun in this way to complete a novel with a minimum of 50,000 words in a month, there is nothing lacking or unpolished in the final book.
Readers of this review who are unable to acquire The Gift of Words immediately but need advice on any of the issues mentioned, can go to www.literacy.org.nz/ www.toughlove.org.nz / www.grg.org.nz and firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Josie Laird
Publisher: Swooping Kereru