The Coalwood Way
by Homer Hickam
Chapter 24 ~ The Starvation Army
Discussion ~ Gossip in Coalwood runs around the fence
line, while the Hickam's Christmas tree remains forlornly leaning against
the house, undecorated. Starving birds use it as a haven, but the hunger
theme looms large in this chapter. Sonny struggles with his drawings
and his list, which, he is shocked to discover, Elsie has looked at.
Still, Sonny and his mom spend some quality time together, during which he
is both puzzled by her behavior, and comes to understand her motivations better.
Writers' Workshop ~
(1) A nice technique used by Our Author
here is the climax of the tension over Sonny's trip to the mine. Secrets
create tension in a story (as in life), so it always provides a nice twist
when the person from whom the secret has been kept (in this case, Elsie)
has been a party to the conspiracy all along. Perhaps you can think
of some times when secrets you were trying to keep ended up coming out differently
than you expected.
(2) Sonny is greatly surprised when he meets
the kids from Welch, who turn out to be much more similar to his friends than
he would have expected. He has built up all sorts of assumptions and
expectations of them that prove false. Our prejudices usually turn out
to be unfounded once we are confronted with the truth. Part of my great
enjoyment on my trip to Russia was in discovering that the people were very
much like us, despite what I had been taught as a child. Perhaps you
can recall an instance where some person or group you met up with turned
out to be much different that you had anticipated.
Freud's Couch ~
(1) When Elsie announces that she has decided
not to go to Myrtle Beach,
Sonny is elated, but Elsie seems to have some bitterness about it.
This provides us with two insights into human psychology that make for interesting
plot turns. Elsie has done what she knows she must do, even though it leaves
a bitter taste in her mouth. We all must make decisions sometimes that
we regret or resent, and the knowledge that we have done what we must does
not make the decision any easier. What thoughts do you imagine are going
through Elsie's mind? Conversely, Sonny is pleased by her decision (since
it meets his needs and satisfies his desires) even though he must know that
Elsie is less than fully satisfied by her choice. We often fail to
see fully the view of others when their decision results in our getting what
we want. Is Sonny being selfish in this regard? Either of these
scenarios would make a nice segment of a short story for your notebook.
(2) Elsie tries to make Sonny feel better
about his conflicts with Homer, particularly as they revolve around Poppy.
She points out that Homer has difficulty expressing his deepest feelings,
especially to Sonny, or to admit that he has been wrong in his interpretations
of events. Perhaps this sounds like someone you know. These kinds
of emotional character qualities help to make literary characters much more
real to the reader.
(3) In response to Sonny's aggravation that
Elsie has read his "list" of concerns, Elsie responds that, "Parents can do
any dang thing they want if it's to make sure their kids get brought up right."
It should be easy to see that this statement is both highly defensible and an obvious violation of Sonny's
rights. Since this is a situation that almost every teen has experienced,
you could write about a time when this happened to you - how you felt about
it and what you said and did. Our Author assumes that you have been
through such a situation, because he expects you to identify with Sonny without
a complete explanation of that character's feelings.
(4) Elsie reveals that she once felt about
Big Creek kids the way Sonny had about the kids from Welch (until he met them).
She relates a story of how she gained her "revenge" when her basketball team
from Gary whipped the "snooty" bunch from Big Creek and taught them a lesson.
Sports often exaggerates our differences with opponents from other geographic,
social, or economic regions and provides motivation to prove ourselves better
in some tangible way than those with whom we compete. Perhaps you have
a story from your own experience in which you encountered "the enemy" and
"taught them a lesson."
Mountaineer Morality ~
When Elsie tries to entice a secretive Sonny into telling her about his mine
trip, Sonny evades the inquiry, saying, "I knew better than to help Mom stir
her own pot, especially when I was the stew meat." What exactly do
you think this saying means? How else might it be worded? What
does it say about Sonny (and/or West Virginians) that he uses this particular
choice of wording?
(2) Sonny refers to the Golden Horseshoe
test as an important element in his education, saying that there was "no greater
honor" than winning it. Would a non-West Virginian understand this
allusion, or is it there solely for the enjoyment of Mountaineers? Do
other states have similar tests? Why would he use such an allusion if
only a limited part of his audience will understand its importance?
(3) Elsie gives Sergeant Martin of the Salvation
Army a check for $500 as a donation for the Christmas packages that will be
distributed. Considering how tough the economy has been in Coalwood,
and how there seems to be little to go around (think back to all the allusions
to hunger and shortages of money we have seen in the book so far), Elsie's
charity seems quite extreme. This seems another reminder to me of something
I read just before my Russia trip. It is considered impolite to finish
all the food on the table when you are a guest at someone's house, no matter
how little you have actually eaten or how hungry you are. Why do you
think that is? Why is Elsie so charitable with the Salvation Army when
times are so "tight" in Coalwood? Would these moralities make sense
to people from other geographic regions?
(4) One of the most difficult moments of
the chapter comes when Elsie tells Sonny (re: his desire to see Dreama accepted
in Coalwood), "It's wrong to try to make right what can't be made right."
This seems opposite of what I would consider another West Virginia morality,
that there is honor and triumph in doing what is right, even if you are doomed
to fail in your ultimate task. You might wish to discuss whether these
two seeming opposites can both be true at the same time, and how a group of
people might be able to believe both things. Or you may decide that
one of those statements is wrong in its applicability to West Virginians.