Coalwood Way: A Memoir

Coalwood Way: A Memoir

by Homer Hickam

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Overview

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


From the Hardcover edition.

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: 317,670
File size: 716 KB

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.


From the Hardcover edition.

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.

Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

This Reader's Group Guide to Homer Hickam's The Coalwood Way is designed to provoke discussion and enhance the reader's enjoyment of this remarkable book.

Foreword

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 Quentina 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?

Customer Reviews

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Coalwood Way 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Cavin Farris More than 1 year ago
i loved the rocket boys, coalwood way, and sky of stone by homer
that_one_dude More than 1 year ago
The Coalwood Way By Homer Hickman This book is a memoir of Homer Hickman's life in Coalwood West Virginia. Coalwood is a mining town where you either mine for your live or you get lucky as a teenager and leave on a scholarship for football; but Homer has other ideas in mind. Him and his friends (The Rocket Boys) start building rockets and their hopes for college. This book tells about Homer's tragedies and his greatest moments in Coalwood. I thought this book is great for any member of the family. This memoir is full of sadness, comedy, and happiness. The ending of the book will leave you feeling full and satisfied. I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read or is a West Virginian
Guest More than 1 year ago
Im only half way through the book and I just can't put it down. After seeing the honorary movie, October Sky I just knew that I had to read the book. It was awesome and true mix of heart and desire. And if you loved October Sky, you'll definetly love The Coalwood Way... Its absolutely one of the best follow-up books that i have ever read...i cant wait until I'm done and can begin reading Sky of Stone...
Guest More than 1 year ago
AWSOME BOOK, COMBINES CHILDHOOD DREAMS WITH FAMILY DRAMA!!
TulsaTV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another visit to the author's hometown of Coalwood. The previous book focused on home-built rockets. This one is about adolescent angst, family relationships, and life in a small mining town. Enjoyed it very much.
kjflaherty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you read "Rocket Boys", you will love following the continuing story of Sonny. If you haven't read it, you can still easily get wrapped up this story and transported to Coalwood, WV. I loved this book!
jamespurcell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent memoir. A lively and enjoyable supplement to his first book, October Sky. A good story to have told and well written. Clearly, Homer Hickam might have had a successful career as an author rather than an engineer. With the two books that I have read to date he is well on his way. Sam Taylor has written a more comprehensive and enlightening review which should encourage you to read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good read. I’m ordering the sequel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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redsfan19 More than 1 year ago
"The Coalwood Way" is a "sequel" to "Rocket Boys" and "October Sky", but it is unusual. The story takes place in the during the time period of the original books, but, being a memoir, it focuses on different things. Almost all the characters are the same in both stories, including the Rocket Boys, Homer and Elsie Hickam, Jake Mosby, and Miss Riley. However, some characters are less significant, such as Dorothy Plunk, and a few new characters are introduced, such as Dreama Jenkins and Ginger Dantzler. The main difference between the two stories is that while "Rocket Boys" and "October Sky" focus on rockets and the science fair, "The Coalwood Way" is mostly about problems in Coalwood, WV. Although a great book for both teens and adults, "The Coalwood Way" is more fun to read if you have already read either "Rocket Boys" or "October Sky".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is something about Mr. Hickam's writing that draws you in immediately. It seems that each and every word that he writes is meaningful not just as a word in a sentence, but in the overall context of the novel. It is almost like poetry, but a kind of no-frills, down-to-earth poetry. But it is not really the words that you recognize when you read the novel. It is more the way he tells you the story, the patient, completely trusting way that you learn about him. He writes this book for the whole world to see, and you get the feeling that he bares his soul and trusts you completely. It is this trusting ability that he imparts that is so compelling about his works because although he is a great writer and shaper of phrases, it is ultimately his voice, even more than his message, which will keep you focused in the novel. Moreover, he has a gift of being able to impart whatever feelings he has at the moment onto the page, and in doing so, puts you into his world. This novel has been called an equal of Rocket Boys, but I think that in some ways, this novel is even better. It focuses more on the people of the town instead of showing Mr. Hickam's childhood. I also find this novel more honest and realistic of the his life. There are parts in Rocket Boys where you don't get the full story and which are covered in this book. These parts may not be the wonderful, life-always-turns-out-great kind of stories, but that's life. I think that the idea that life's not always fair, but you do what you can is conveyed even more clearly in this novel than in Rocket Boys. Having said all this though, I must admit that I like Rocket Boys more. It is not that this book is written more poorly (no, on the contrary, this book feels more mature), but simply because I enjoyed the details of Mr. Hickams early forays into the world of rocketry in that earlier book. However, The Coalwood Way is most certainly my second favorite book and I would recommend everyone to read this fascinating memoir.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is something about Mr. Hickam's writing that draws you in immediately. It seems that each and every word that he writes is meaningful not just as a word in a sentence, but in the overall context of the novel. It is almost like poetry, but a kind of no-frills, down-to-earth poetry. But it is not really the words that you recognize when you read the novel. It is more the way he tells you the story, the patient, completely trusting way that you learn about him. He writes this book for the whole world to see, and you get the feeling that he bares his soul and trusts you completely. It is this trusting ability that he imparts that is so compelling about his works because although he is a great writer and shaper of phrases, it is ultimately his voice, even more than his message, which will keep you focused in the novel. Moreover, he has a gift of being able to impart whatever feelings he has at the moment onto the page, and in doing so, puts you into his world. This novel has been called an equal of Rocket Boys, but I think that in some ways, this novel is even better. It focuses more on the people of the town instead of showing Mr. Hickam's childhood. I also find this novel more honest and realistic of the his life. There are parts in Rocket Boys where you don't get the full story and which are covered in this book. These parts may not be the wonderful, life-always-turns-out-great kind of stories, but that's life. I think that the idea that life's not always fair, but you do what you can is conveyed even more clearly in this novel than in Rocket Boys. Having said all this though, I must admit that I like Rocket Boys more. It is not that this book is written more poorly (no, on the contrary, this book feels more mature), but simply because I enjoyed the details of Mr. Hickams early forays into the world of rocketry in that earlier book. However, The Coalwood Way is most certainly my second favorite book and I would recommend everyone to read this fascinating memoir.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading all of Homer Hickam's memoirs, and this one was no exception. He pulls you into the small town of Coalwood, and like many who have come before me, I was reluctant to leave. The Coalwood Way adds another dimension to the Rocket Boys, concentrating more on Sonny as a person, showing his fledgling attempts at love, and the struggles with his father. This one is a must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
   'Rocket Boys' (aka October Sky) was indeed a great novel with a fantastic story. Its sequel is as well, although it is a decidedly different book, both in content and tone. I loved both and marvel anew at Mr. Hickam's ability as a writer to turn the mundane into glory. The novel begins with a brief retrospective (although Hickam is clever to place it within the action so it doesn't seem as if he's bringing the reader up to date, especially the reader who hasn't read October Sky). All his main characters are firmly in place by the end of Chapter One. Where October Sky was really about Sonny's relationship to his father, The Coalwood Way is really his mother's book so keep an eye on Elsie! It is important to realize that The Coalwood Way actually takes place during the same timeframe as October Sky, actually before the science fairs. Readers who think they know the October Sky book because they've seen the movie are often confused by this if they start the series with The Coalwood Way. People, the movie is filled with errors about this story - Sonny (Homer) didn't win a scholarship! Sonny didn't quit school! Sonny didn't go to work in the mine! The true October Sky story is vastly richer than the good but essentially simple-minded story told in the movie. In the Coalwood Way, we learn so much more about the Hickam family, its relationship to Coalwood, and the really harsh rules that govern the people who live there. Although she actually occupies only a small part of the story, probably the most fascinating character is Dreama, the girl from the rough town of Gary. All she wants to be is a Coalwood girl. I won't reveal what happens to her except to say her tragedy represents all the is wrong with Coalwood society although its aftermath represents all that is good. To sum up, this is a grand book. For Jan Karon fans, this is the Mitford tale told true, and far, far richer than those books. Still, if you like Karon, you'll love Hickam!
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Rocket Boys' was indeed a great novel with a fantastic story. Its sequel is as well, although it is a decidedly different book, both in content and tone. I loved both and marvel anew at Mr. Hickam's ability as a writer to turn the mundane into glory. The novel begins with a brief retrospective (although Hickam is clever to place it within the action so it doesn't seem as if he's bringing the reader up to date, especially the reader who hasn't read October Sky). All his main characters are firmly in place by the end of Chapter One. Where October Sky was really about Sonny's relationship to his father, The Coalwood Way is really his mother's book so keep an eye on Elsie! It is important to realize that The Coalwood Way actually takes place during the same timeframe as October Sky, actually before the science fairs. Readers who think they know the October Sky book because they've seen the movie are often confused by this if they start the series with The Coalwood Way. People, the movie is filled with errors about this story - Sonny (Homer) didn't win a scholarship! Sonny didn't quit school! Sonny didn't go to work in the mine! The true October Sky story is vastly richer than the good but essentially simple-minded story told in the movie. In the Coalwood Way, we learn so much more about the Hickam family, its relationship to Coalwood, and the really harsh rules that govern the people who live there. Although she actually occupies only a small part of the story, probably the most fascinating character is Dreama, the girl from the rough town of Gary. All she wants to be is a Coalwood girl. I won't reveal what happens to her except to say her tragedy represents all the is wrong with Coalwood society although its aftermath represents all that is good. To sum up, this is a grand book. For Jan Karon fans, this is the Mitford tale told true, and far, far richer than those books. Still, if you like Karon, you'll love Hickam!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as I do with all of Mr. Hickam's novels. I really felt as if I was in Coalwood. I think it is amazing how he remembers his past experiences so accurately. :)
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved October Sky. I love The Coalwood Way. There's something about Mr. Hickam's writing that just tickles me in the right way. I read him and pretty soon it's as if I'm right beside him and we're having this adventure together. I can't think of another writer that so absorbs me into his writing. If you have someone who needs cheering up, this book would make a great gift. It cheered me up and I wasn't even unhappy! My class and I are reading it aloud for the holidays. So far, all smiles!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was surprised to find that although there's a lot more to this book, in the end, it was a Christmas story. And a story of miracles. Mr. Hickam has a rare gift, to make a memoir read like a novel yet you can feel the underlying truths. It isn't often I can say a book has changed my life. This one has. I urge everybody to get this book for anyone troubled about life. There are wonderful answers here and they really go beyond Christmas. Even after Christmas, I would give this book to anyone sick or afflicted or spiritually troubled. Mr. Hickam doesn't write about rockets. As he says in his opening paragraph, he writes about lessons of life, or truth, as Coalwood gave him the vision to tell it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My heart and soul have been stirred by this book. I have been trying to figure out some things about myself lately and then somebody gave me this book. I hadn't read October Sky but if it's half as good, I can't wait to read it. Sonny Hickam tells a story here of true values, of miracles, of passionate truth. I'm in love with all the wonderful people of Coalwood. I especially liked the story of the deer on Christmas Eve. I will be assigning this one to my class to see how a memoir should be written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I lost sleep reading October Sky and now Homer's done it to me again! The Coalwood Way is very different than October Sky yet it had the same means to capture my imagination and not let go. The Rocket Boys are all there, and Homer's folks, and the people of Coalwood, and some new people, too, yet I sense this book is much more spiritual than the other. Homer tells of fighting a kind of sadness that he couldn't figure out. I tell you what - I'm giving this book to all the people I know who aren't happy with their lives. I think there are a lot of answers here. Oprah, are you listening????