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 referring.

Discussion ~ 
    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 description.
     (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?

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