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 ~ 
     (1)   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.

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