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