Coalwood Way: A Memoir

Coalwood Way: A Memoir

by Homer Hickam

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It's fall, 1959, and Homer "Sonny" Hickam and his fellow Rocket Boys are in their senior year at Big Creek High, launching handbuilt rockets that soar thousands of feet into the West Virginia sky. But in a season traditionally marked by celebrations of the spirit, Coalwood finds itself at a painful crossroads.

The strains can be felt within the Hickam home, where a beleaguered HomerSr. is resorting to a daring but risky plan to keep the mine alive, and his wife Elsie is feeling increasingly isolated from both her family and the townspeople. And Sonny, despite a blossoming relationship with a local girl whose dreams are as big as his, finds his own mood repeatedly darkened by an unexplainable sadness.

Eager to rally the town's spirits and make her son's final holiday season at home a memorable one, Elsie enlists Sonny and the Rocket Boys' aid in making the Coalwood Christmas Pageant the best ever. But trouble at the mine and the arrival of a beautiful young outsider threaten to tear the community apart when it most needs to come together. And when disaster strikes at home, and Elsie's beloved pet squirrel escapes under his watch, Sonny realizes that helping his town and redeeming himself in his mother's eyes may be a bigger-and more rewarding-challenge than he has ever faced.

The result is pure storytelling magic- a tale of small-town parades and big-hearted preachers, the timeless love of families and unforgettable adventures of boyhood friends-that could only come from the man who brought the world Rocket Boys

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307423320
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Series: Coalwood , #2
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 217,465
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Homer Hickam was born and raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. The author of Torpedo Junction, Rocket Boys, and the novelBack to the Moon, he is a retired NASA engineer, a scuba instructor, and a consultant on a variety of aerospace projects. He lives with his wife in Huntsville, Alabama-Rocket City, USA.

Read an Excerpt

OF ALL THE lessons I learned when I built my rockets, the most important were not about chemistry, physics, or metallurgy, but of virtues, sins, and other true things that shape us as surely as rivers carve valleys, or rain melts mountains, or currents push apart the sea. I would learn these lessons at a time when Coalwood, the mining town where I had lived my entire life, was just beginning to fade away. Yet, as the fall of 1959 began, and the leaves on the trees in the forests that surrounded us began to explode in spectacular color, Coalwood's men still walked with a trudging grace to and from the vast, deep mine, and its women bustled in and out of the company stores and fought the coal dust that drifted into theit homes. In the dark old schools, the children learned and the teachers taught, and, in snowy white churches built on hillside cuts, the preachers preached, and God, who we had no doubt was also a West Virginian, was surely doing His work in heaven, too At the abandoned slack dump we called Cape Coalwood, rockets still leapt into the air, and boyish voices yet echoed between ancient, worn mountains beneath a pale and watchful sky. Coalwood endured as it always had, but a wheel was turning that would change nearly everything, and no one, not even my father, would be able to stop it. When that brittle parchment autumn turned into our deepest, whitest winter, this and many other lessons would be taught. Though they were hard and sometimes cruel things to learn, they were true, and true things, as the people of Coalwood saw fit to teach me, are always filled with a shining glory.

To me, there was no better time to launch a rocket than in the fall, especially a West Virginia fall. There seemed to be a cool, dry energy in the air that filled us with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. I had always believed that our rockets were lifted as much by our dreams as burning propellant, and as the lazy summer faded and a northerly wind swept down on us with its lively breath, anything seemed possible. It was also when the school year started and I always felt an excitement stir within me at the thought of learning new and wonderful things. Fall had other marvels, too. At the Cape, we were often treated to V-shaped flotillas of migrating Canadian geese, bound from the far north to places we had only read about or imagined. We always stopped our rocket preparations to gaze longingly at the great creatures as they winged their way high overhead, and to listen to their joyful honking that seemed to be calling us to join them. "If only we could," Sherman said once to my comment. "Even for just a moment, to look down on our mountains and see them the same as angels." Sherman always liked to remind us that we lived in a beautiful place and I guess we did, although sometimes it was easy to forget, especially since we'd never known anywhere else.

Once, a rare snow goose, as purely white as moonbeams, landed on the old slack dump, perhaps fooled by the reflection from the slick surface of the coal tailings. We gathered around the great strutting bird, awed by the sight of her. Then I noticed that her wing tips were as black as the faces of Coalwood miners after a shift. O'Dell said the reason for the black tips was so the geese could see each other inside a white cloud. O'Dell knew a lot about animals so I believed his explanation, but it got me off to thinking. How did the snow geese decide what colors their feathers would be? Did they all get together up north somewhere a million years ago and take a vote? It was a mystery and the snow goose made no comment. She just looked annoyed. When she tired of us gawking at her, she flapped her wings and continued her journey, and I confess I was relieved. I knew the snow goose did not belong in Coalwood. Some people, especially my mother, said neither did I.

Our first rocket of the fall was Auk XXII-E. A serious little rocket, it began its journey with a mighty spout of flame and tur-moil and its shock wave rattled our wooden blockhouse as it climbed. I ran outside with the other boys, but no matter how much I strained my eyes, I couldn't see it. All I could see were clouds that went, as far as I knew, all the way up to heaven. The seconds ticked by. We had never lost one of our rockets, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe this one was going to be our first. If it had fallen on Rocket Mountain, buried itself into the soft black West Virginia loam up there, maybe we had missed it. "Time, O'Dell," I called nervously.

O'Dell looked at the stopwatch he'd borrowed last year from one of the coal company industrial engineers and forgotten to give back. "I think it's still flying," he said.

"Then where is it?" I demanded. We couldn't lose it. Like every rocket we launched, it held answers we had to know.

Reading Group Guide

This Reading Group Guide to Homer Hickam's The Coalwood Way is designed to stimulate discussion and enhance the reader's appreciation of this remarkable book.

1. As you read this memoir, did you begin to feel as if you knew the people involved? Did you like them? Do you think you’d have been happy to live in Coalwood in the late 1950s? If you had, what position in it would you have wanted? Coal miner? Foreman? Teacher? Housewife? Preacher? Doctor? Rocket Boy or Girl? Football Star? An outsider like Dreama?

2. Was this memoir similar in its construction with others that you have read? What do you think of the memoir genre? Do you think it might be hard to write a memoir that is interesting to readers?

3. How would you describe this book? Would you call it a man’s book or a woman’s book? Is it just a story of a boy with a dream or the story of a small mining town? Or is it something grander and deeper?

4. How would you describe Sonny’s parents? Do you think Homer (Senior) and Elsie love each other? How do they display their love? Why do they fight?

5. Compare and contrast the hopes and dreams and attitudes of Dreama and Ginger.

6. Why did Elsie think the Christmas Pageant was so important to her and to Coalwood? Why did she initially give up on it and decide to go to Myrtle Beach? Why did she change her mind? Why did Sonny not want to help her on the Pageant? Why did he change his mind?

7. Is this a universal story? Could it be set in other times or is it specific to Coalwood and West Virginia in the late ‘50s?

8. This story is also about the rewards and costs of nonconformity. Who conforms, who doesn’t and what are the consequences of their actions? Is that a problem today and can this story help those who tend to go against the expected norms? How was Quentin a nonconformist? How was Dreama different? Why did Elsie love Quentin so much but seemed to reject Dreama? Would you consider Ginger a non-conformist?

9. When you began to read about it, why did you think Sonny felt strangely sad? Did the real reason for it surprise you? Do you think allowing Quentin to psychoanalyze Sonny would have been a good idea? Why do you think Sonny didn’t think so? Do you think Sonny would be diagnosed as clinically depressed these days?

10. Why do you think Dreama stayed with Cuke? Was Cuke all bad? Why did Coalwood accept Cuke but not Dreama? Why did Dreama want to be a Coalwood girl? Did her encounter with “Santa Claus” Clowers change your opinion of her? Why did Roy Lee seem to have such a problem about Dreama? Did Dreama have a destiny that she couldn’t escape?

11. Why do you think Sonny wrote the Pageant script the way he did? Why did he choose the three “Kings” of Coalwood to be who they were? Do you think it was wrong for Coalwood to pretend it was where the Christ-child was born?

12. Do you think Ginger and Sonny were really a “cute couple?” Do you think they should have worked harder to be together?

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