The Coalwood Way
by Homer Hickam
Chapter 1 ~ Song of the Cape
Reminder: For the sake of consistency,
and to avoid confusion as much as possible, on all the chapter pages I will
use the names of the characters while referring to the present-day Homer
Hickam as "the author" to distinguish him from Sonny (his teenage alter-ego)
and from Homer in the book (his father). I want to make sure you know precisely to whom I'm
If you have seen the movie
October Sky, you will probably recognize that all the rocketry
mentioned here appeared in the movie. Some folks might think that detracts
from this book, but I like to think of it as a brief reintroduction to old
friends. In fact, we owe a great debt of gratitude to that movie (though
the author confesses to being a little disappointed in the way his book was
altered), because it brought Homer Hickam's work to the national scene, engaging
a large group of new readers who clamored for more books. Because of
it, many more people can now enjoy his work.
In this chapter, we are
introduced to a large number of characters who will play important roles in
the story. It is remarkable how easily the personalities and storylines
are brought into play. In short order, we are provided with insights
into the lives and motivations of these characters. Several major characters
are introduced, as well as seemingly unimportant ones (including Chipper,
the pet squirrel). Only through the author's masterful storytelling
will we eventually learn that everything in the book has some significance. We learn
of his interest in rocketry, as well as the building momentum toward the
Veterans' Day and Christmas Pageants. All the introductions are smooth,
seamless, and free-flowing, so that each new piece of the overall story comes
to us logically, and without revealing too much of its full purpose.
Writers' Workshop ~
(1) The introductory
paragraph is literate, picturesque, and provides all the proper elements
of setting. Look closely at the imagery used here. Make a complete
outline of this paragraph, showing the structure clearly. Then make
a list of the verbs and adjectives it contains. Do you notice any patterns,
rhythms, or connections between them?
(2) The author's description
of the AUK XXII-E is pretty detailed. Do you think you could draw a
picture of it from his written imagery? Find an unusual but interesting
item about which to write such a description. (Maybe it will help to
imagine that you are an alien viewing this thing for the first time.)
See if you can get an artistic friend to draw the object solely from your
(3) Four new characters
are introduced in this chapter (John Dubonnet, Dreama Jenkins, Cuke Snoddy,
and Tag Farmer) Form a hypothesis about the role each of these characters
will play in the story.
(4) Tag Farmer says
of Cuke Snoddy, "Trouble there". We would assume that this is foreshadowing,
but the phrase could mean many different things. What are some of the
possible meanings you can think of?
(5) The author relates
that Mrs. Laird had once predicted that Sonny would make his living as a
writer. Do you recall predictions people have made about your future
based on some work you've done?
Freud's Couch ~
(1) All seasons of the
year have traditionally had certain characteristics attached to them.
Autumn is usually seen as a time of endings and death. Here, the author
takes the completely opposite approach. Make a list of the characteristics
of the other seasons, then see if you can write a paragraph about one of
them that defies the usual stereotypes as the author does here.
(2) The author uses
the snow goose as a symbol of things that do not belong to a certain time
or place. It symbolizes Sonny's feelings of being alone, even within
his family and in a town as small as Coalwood. What symbols would you
use to reflect those times when you feel like you do not belong?
(3) Do you agree with
Tag Farmer's assessment that "A man who hurts his woman is a man who most
of all don't like himself."? How can we tell from people's actions
that they are lacking in a strong self-concept? How can you use that
insight in your future writing?
(4) The author closes
the chapter with an expression of Sonny's mixed feelings about a variety
of subjects (his grades, the pageant, rocketry, Poppy). Have you had
a time in your life when you were this overwhelmed by strong emotions on
a wide variety of topics?
Mountaineer Morality ~
(1) Elsie (Mom) expresses
a variety of analyses about Dreama in just a few comments. Based on
these comments, what do you think Elsie really thinks of Dreama?
Do you expect her to reject Dreama or sympathize with her? What do
her insights imply about West Virginians? What do you expect Dreama's
role in the story to be?
(2) Sonny tries not
to sound "puffed up" about his intention to get straight A's, because that
would be a sin in Coalwood. Why is it a sin, and what do you expect
to happen to someone who is puffed up? What is your favorite story
about a person who got all puffed up? Might this "sin" be looked at
differently in other cultures?