In his new memoir, The Coalwood Way, Homer Hickam takes us on a nostalgic journey through the coal mines of small-town America in the 1950s. Birthed in coal dust and back-breaking labor, the people of "the Coalwood way are driven by a personal work ethic and patriotic responsibility that eludes many 21st century Americans. The residents of Coalwood and towns like it believed that without the mining of coal, there would be no steel, and without steel, there would be no United States as we know it. Attach this perspective to your mind as you enter the world of Coalwood as recreated by best-selling author and former NASA engineer Homer Hickam. Building on the success of his 1998 book, Rocket Boys, which inspired the movie October Sky, Hickam has spun yet another story of heartwarming possibilities. Now in their senior year of high school, the Rocket Boys are drafted to make Coalwood's annual Christmas pageant the best ever. Hickam's story is naively original and nostalgically humorous. Take, for instance, the names of some of its characters: Cuke (named after his love for cucumbers) Snoddy, Dreama Jenkins, Arnee Bee, the Mallet family consisting of Leo, Cleo, Rodney, Seibert and Germy, Tug and Hug Yates, Basil Ogelthorpe and Mrs. Anastopoulos.
This story works because it is honestly transparent and desperately realistic. The issues are real: a second son feeling second and sometimes unforgiven; a workaholic father feeling responsible, yet inadequate; an intelligent, perceptive mother feeling isolated, yet empowered; a lonely outcast from the wrong side of town feeling desperate and determined to belong and the town which seems unable to escape its petty provincialism; and finally, the struggle of a town's identity to move into a hopeful future without uprooting its promising past. Yes, The Coalwood Way is the story of a "Rocket Boy shooting for the moon." But it is also the story of the maturation of a boy, a family and a town who learn that growing up, while hard to do, is possible when we stay together, pray together and ultimately, learn to live together. That is not a bad lesson for our world to re-learn.
Dan Francis is a writer in Nashville and the grandson of a Kentucky coal miner.