Keeping her Feet on the Ground

A Reader, her Texts, and the World

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 McGill University


Margaret Mackey. 2016. One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

This is a story of reading told from the inside out, spanning childhood (birth to age 13, 1950–1962). As Mackey says, there are “aspects of reading that we understand only from the inside” (270). To my knowledge, there is no other such account (available to public view) that attempts this, never mind doing it so very well. Mackey is a consummate reader, writer, and thinker; she is perceptive, eclectic, methodical, and scrupulously honest. As she repeatedly avows, she is a girl reader, a “gendered selector” (208). She is also a walker, though not of the zombie kind. As a “placed child” (13), she read the world through her feet. Mackey grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland in the 1950s and 1960s, an import—a “family of incomers” (472)—from Nova Scotia, where her family was originally from before they moved to the house on Pennywell Road.

Mackey’s decision to write an “auto-bibliography” (as she calls her project in the title of this work) stemmed from the conviction that “[her] story does not take priority over other versions—but it matters to [her]” (82). Auto-bibliography is a term that comes out of Mackey’s background as a librarian; endnote would be an example of what an auto-bibliography (as the word suggests) is intended to do. Mackey deftly sidesteps pinning down her appropriation of this term. Instead, she provides an exemplar of what a reader’s auto-bibliography might look like. The heart of this new genre lies in its subject—Margaret, the girl in the text—but also in its method and structure. Mackey (nee McCurdy) reacquired, reread, and examined everything (or, as much as possible of everything) that had crossed her path in a becoming-literate being (including family albums and newsletters; the McCurdy family published its own newsletter that enjoyed a dedicated readership during its lifespan). She adopted geographer Kevin Lynch’s(1960) five categories of paths, landmarks, nodes, edges, and districts that he had devised to map a cityscape. Mackey applied them to telling a story of a reader. Paths delineate how she developed into a reader—a reader in motion. Landmarks identify seminal moments in that progression (for example, birth and summer vacation). Mackey uses nodes, the junctures at which paths cross, to address changing text forms as well as “knotty” (41) cross-sections to do with encounters of representations of the Other. Edges explore the boundaries of her growing-up world, including an important discussion of knowledge excluded or ignored in her literacy upbringing. Districts focus on the broader institutional and societal contexts that enabled as well as constrained literacy formation for a girl growing up in Newfoundland in the 1950s: “school, church, library, museum, movie theatres, bookstore, radio and TV stations, and more” (44). Early on, I decided that my favorite part was the Paths, which was then superseded by Landmarks, then Nodes, then Edges, and so on. I think I still am drawn mostly to the Paths, perhaps because they constitute “first places” (52), but other readers will find their own ways in and around. What makes Mackey’s auto-bibliography compelling, as well as highly useful, is the way in which she theorizes her experiences, as, when in Paths, she draws on Wayne Johnston’s (2011) notions of the Murk, revisiting this notion later in the book once she and her readers have travelled through this opaque region of childhood memory.

For Girlhood Studies readers, it has to be said that the book is not a study of gender, nor does Mackey in any way take a feminist perspective. On the one hand, she is interested in extrapolating from lived details to a theory that can help explain them and where the theories are drawn mainly from cognitive poetics and reader response. The “grounded” (478) Mackey, on the other, always returns to the “material matrix” that underlies becoming a “textual interpreter” (7), and this is what may be of greatest interest to journal readers, particularly of this special issue that focuses on the girl in the text. The sheer breadth of the matrix addressed by Mackey is astonishing: texts, especially children’s literature, but including popular culture (such as comic books, games); objects (like school scrapbooks); photographs; and, through narrative, evocation of the kinesthetic. Mackey continually reiterates that (at least for her) literacy has been, and remains, an embodied process, its force and affect propelling her forward, carrying through to her descent, as an adult, to see what is “lurking” in the “basement” (166) of her reader’s mind, forgotten yet latent and active. This opens the book to examining settler stories and the tensions between “foot rights” as she “galloped” (359) through what she thought of as her land and territory, and the claims of those who were there first, before her, yet whose traces had been so effectively erased by the dominant culture through a “guilt narrative of complete extermination” (420) that she says, with sorrow, she completely imbibed and later had to correct.

Coming back to the archive of the auto-bibliography, the photographs alone of Margaret as a girl are to be envied for how they capture body and mind: Margaret and her brother in her bedroom’s window seat, with its glimpse of her child’s vantage point on St John’s, and where we note Margaret’s tucked legs and tilted head; another of a blazered Margaret in movement, purposefully leaving home for her first day of school, tucking something with the shape of a book in her pocket; and—my favorite—Margaret reading while stirring the family porridge with a wooden spoon. The spoon seems to get stuck, as mind and body are thoroughly engaged in the book. One of the greatest insights of which Mackey’s book reminds us—she provides countless concrete examples—is that reading a book (or anything for that matter) is not a passive activity. Mackey talks about the “sympathetic twitches” (489) she experienced in her brain while re-visiting certain childhood texts. Reading is about motion. Later in the book, especially in the Coda, she speculates on the relationships between her bookish upbringing and inclinations and the embodied experiences of children and youth steeped in a different kind of archive.

There are some blind spots, like the Golliwog, dead center in a photo of classmates in a Christmas play. Mackey is silent on this point until, without a trace of her usual irony, she notes in the caption to a smaller version of the same photo that one child dressed up as a Golliwog. Mackey knows that there are times when literate encounters “fail” (330), when they have noxious effects, leaving behind “delusional vapours” (377) contributing to deeply misconceived notions that last into adulthood. That, too, is an instructive aspect of the book that readers will be interested in taking up, and where different theoretical lenses might be helpful.

Mackey’s hope, at the end of it all, is that her “sprawling and shaggy” (509) project (five years in the making) inspires other maps of what is involved in becoming this reader, whoever the reader may be. Yes, the book is long—509 pages of text, 565 pages in total, with references and index. But in the reading of it, it doesn’t feel long. I enjoyed every page, every word, every turn of phrase. I even read slowly on purpose, deferring the end. In this I felt as if complicit with Mackey, disbelieving that such a deeply enjoyable and meaningful project could end. However, like a good novel, it encourages rereading and in the reentry, can be picked up at any node, path, landmark, edge, or district.

Contributor Notes

Teresa Strong-Wilson is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University and editor-in-chief of the McGill Journal of Education, Teresa Strong-Wilson teaches, researches, writes, and is an avid reader. E-mail: