The Coalwood Way
by Homer Hickam

   This website is the basis of a Creative Writing exercise for high school students.  Its purpose is to provide the students with an exceptionally well-written book to analyze as to form, structure, and technique. I found it very easy to choose a book for detailed dissection, because I believe The Coalwood Way to be one of the best-written books of all time.  It is creative and well-structured, filled with fully-drawn memorable characters.  The incidents are depicted dynamically, the plotlines are paced perfectly, and the verbiage exact.  The result is a nearly perfect book that  leaves the reader full of ideas, pleased by the shared journey with the author.  It is simultaneously history and folk tale, family relationship drama and legend, morality play and mystery story.  One wonders how it (or any book) could possibly be any better.

    This book particularly resonates with a certain generation of West Virginians (of which I am one), whose families, experiences, and life lessons were quite similar.  The values and attitudes presented here are probably universal, but are definitely familiar to men of my age group.  Self-reliance is high on Homer's list of priority values, but so are family ties, perseverance, introspection, and tradition.   Most of my forebears were farmers rather than miners, but there is a certain stoicism and fatalistic outlook that is common among all Mountaineers, which Homer captures perfectly.  It was virtually impossible to read this book without being frequently reminded of personal remembrances and anecdotes from my own family history, not to mention the numerous small lessons instilled in me by my parents and grandparents.  Sonny's angst is presented here in a readily identifiable way that is never maudlin nor insufferable, but which causes us to genuinely sympathize with his inability to recognize the source of his discomfort and fervently desire that he discover its origins.

   Homer has said that he wanted to entitle the book A Coalwood Christmas (he probably still wishes he had).  Personally, I am amazed that no producer has picked up this story for a Christmas movie, because I believe it could easily become one of those "classics" that people watch every year, like "It's A Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Story".  It might be a nice introduction to this site to watch "October Sky", but the reader should beware that the first few chapters of this book were incorporated into that movie.  It would be foolish, of course, to set the book aside based on its early familiarity, because those first chapters serve only to reacquaint us with characters we have come to accept as old friends and settings that tug at our heartstrings.

   The construction of this novel is as precise and controlled as the NASA projects with which Homer was associated. (I wish this website were as well done.) When the reader looks in retrospect at the interwoven plotlines, subtle allusions and foreshadowing, and the perfect pacing of this novel, there must be an immediate respect for Homer's skill as an artist.  His ability to balance all the aspects of this book are nothing short of absolutely spectacular.  A great book should appeal to us on a variety of levels, and this one does.

   As a memoir, the approach here is unique.  Sonny is grown now, and remembers his past affectionately.  He wants us to share an important moment in his maturation, but retains the "artistic license" to modify events a bit, due to the passage of time.  Though it is difficult to describe to a young person, there does come a time when we look back on even our most painful memories with a certain wistfulness.  Homer does a marvelous job of letting us share in his experiences while, I am certain, experiencing a certain degree of catharsis.  Still, he sticks closely enough to the facts that every page rings true.  Though there is pain in these pages, it has softened over time from its original sharpness to the ache that accompanies our remembrance of things past.  The amazing part is that Homer knows how all of his plotlines will end, but never gives away enough for us to see just how any of the stories will conlcude.  This is the more astounding when we see the many examples of foreshadowing in the book.  This is very difficult to do without ruining the story, but Homer's craft is of such excellence that we never fully realize the extent of the foreshadowing until the plotlines conclude.

Notices for Students:   Your first duty is to create a notebook specifically for Creative Writing II. You should have enough pages to enter all the writing samples and journals required by the website. Many of the questions on the chapter pages may seem rhetorical, but none are. Whenever you are asked to describe, relate, suppose, or explain, you are expected to do so at your highest possible level. This means that you should use your best grammar, spelling, and punctuation on each exercise, as well as being as creative as possible with each assignment.  Utilize your memory, your imagination, and your  writing skills to their utmost.  There are a total of 208 questions on the website, of which you must answer at least 100 questions, with the distribution being a minimum of 20 from each of the 3 segments. The items will be worth 10 points each, with 1000 points being your goal for perfect credit, though only 930 will be required for an A grade. Though it may seem like a great deal of work, there is an enormous amount to be learned about how to write well by reading a book as well-written as this one.  Recognize that every assignment on these pages can help you become a better writer by reflecting on your thoughts and feelings about major individuals and events in your life, which might become elements of your book someday.
    The first thing you should do is reserve a section at the beginning of your notebook on which to keep track of plotlines and themes. Most young writers use a linear style (A led to B which led to C, etc.) which causes their writing to lack the complexity that allows the best novels to be fully interesting and engaging. By looking closely at the intricate structure Homer uses, the student should gain a better understanding of how to construct an interesting story. Follow each plotline throughout the book, and record each instance of its appearance. Along the way, ask yourself how the plot has been developed, changed, or expanded. Similarly, follow the themes that are presented. Look closely at the way each theme is added to, and draw a diagram that shows how each new aspect of the theme is presented.
   It is difficult to know the best way to proceed through this website, but there are caveats in any case.  The preferred method should be to read each chapter, then look at the page of the website associated with it.  This will allow the reader to process the information and think about its meaning as the story progresses.  The caveat here is that it will slow the progress of reading, and after awhile, this might become tedious.  In solution, I would suggest that the student simply jot down ideas related to the questions and activities associated with that chapter, then proceed with the reading.  Fuller answers can then be created when the book is completed.  Unfortunately, some activities are certain to be modified beyond their effective range once the reader has the knowledge provided by later chapters.  Another method would be to simply read the book in its entirety, then go back to the chapter pages.  In this case, many of the activities will be simply impossible, since the complete storyline will be known.  It will permit the reader to proceed more rapidly, but will deprive him of the gradual revelation that comes from proceeding deliberately.

   Each chapter has its own page on this website.  After you read each chapter in the book, click on the link here to that chapter's webpage and investigate the questions therein.  You will find that each page contains a brief review of the plotlines presented, with a second part divided into 3 segments.  The "Writers' Workshop" segment will reflect on the two main aspects of good writing: style and substance.  The Workshop on each page will present ideas about the way in which Homer uses specific words to create ideas.  It will also examine how the plotlines are revealed, and how the portions revealed in this chapter relate to those from previous chapters.  (No, I do not intend to reveal to you where the story is going!)  A second section is "Freud's Couch".  Here we will examine the deep-seated values and vicissitudes of the characters.  Homer reveals much about the development of his personality and character, and we will use this section to help us better understand the meaning of the feelings he relates to us.  The "Mountaineer Morality" segments reflect on the aspects of West Virginians that Homer refers to in his story.  Though he has been living away from "home" for many years now, Homer still feels very close to his West Virginia roots, presenting our citizens with affection and compassion, while being fully honest.

    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).  It sometimes comes off as stilted, but it's the best way I know to make sure you know precisely to whom I'm referring.

   I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have (every time I've read it).  You should be able to infer my love and respect for this book from my comments here, and the fact that I would create a 36-page website to help others fully appreciate it.

Chapter 1 ~ Song of the Cape
Chapter 2 ~ Poppy
Chapter 3 ~ In All My Born Days
Chapter 4 ~ The Stoop Children
Chapter 5 ~ The Coalwood Women's Club
Chapter 6 ~ Float Night
Chapter 7 ~ Veterans Day
Chapter 8 ~ A Rocket Kind of Day
Chapter 9 ~ The Coalwood Sky
Chapter 10 ~ 11 East
Chapter 11 ~ A Disaster of Squirrels
Chapter 12 ~ Jake's Present
Chapter 13 ~ Jim's Decision
Chapter 14 ~ Snakeroot Hollow
Chapter 15 ~ A Cute Couple
Chapter 16 ~ Roy Lee's Lament
Chapter 17 ~ The Gathering of the Greens
Chapter 18 ~ The Dugout
Chapter 19 ~ Trigger and Champion
Chapter 20 ~ Six Hollow
Chapter 21 ~ A Coalwood Girl
Chapter 22 ~ Back to the Drawing Board
Chapter 23 ~ The Long Wall
Chapter 24 ~ The Starvation Army
Chapter 25 ~ The Christmas Formal
Chapter 26 ~ The Second Son
Chapter 27 ~ A Coalwood Wedding
Chapter 28 ~ Once Like the Beautiful Snow
Chapter 29 ~ Life Is What You Make It
Chapter 30 ~ The Coalwood Way
Chapter 31 ~ A Page From Jeremiah
Chapter 32 ~ The Kings of Coalwood

  If, once you have finished the pages, you wish to see the three segments in a consolidated format, you may go to the following pages:

Writers' Workshop Exercises
Freud's Couch Exercises
Mountaineer Morality Exercises

*** All information on this website was collected by the author, and all ideas and opinions are copyright to him.  Though any individual is welcome to use the content of this site (especially in an educational way), proper credit should be given to the author.***