Because of the varying levels of high school students and the varying availability of texts, there are many opportunities for teachers to incorporate fiction and nonfiction texts into a unit to help foster a closer connection between students and the experiences of coal miners. What follows is an introduction to some possible texts. By no means exhaustive, this selection does have texts that meet the needs of various learners, as some young adult literature is included alongside more difficult classical texts.
Novels about Coal Country
D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
Lawrence’s novel, while thematically more about emotional closeness and the pressures it can create, is set in British Coal country. The first chapter, however, gives a strong impression of the life of a coal miner’s wife, especially an outsider who comes into the culture. Because (presumably) students will not be from coal mining families, they should find the protagonist of the first chapter, Mrs. Morel, easy to relate to. It should provide students with some thought-provoking material for class discussions about coal miner’s wives.
A.J. Cronin, The Citadel
Like Lawrence’s Novel,
has a main character who confronts the life of miners as an outsider. The protagonist is an idealistic young doctor who resolves to “make a difference” by tending to the needs of a mining town. He invariably faces consternation in dealing with the “thick culture” of the mining communities, and eventually does leave. The descriptions of the mining town in part one are very well painted for the reader, and many good passages are available for sharing in class.
Susan Campbell Bartoletti, A Coal Miner’s Bride
This is a young adult novel, suitable for grades 4-8. The protagonist, a Polish 13 year old, is an arranged bride who must learn to live in a Pennsylvania coal town with a less-than-ideal husband. Then, when he dies in a mining accident, she must start life over again in this coal town. The accessibility of the prose and the age of the protagonist make this a good choice for 10th grade students or lower; literature circles would be a good option with this text.
Explorations of Coal Country
Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Growing Up In Coal Country
School Library Journal finds that this book makes 1890’s mining town life a “surprisingly compelling topic for today’s young people.” Liberal use of authentic, first-hand documents and references to plenty of adult characters such as Mother Jones makes this text ideally suited to either read-aloud or small group settings. This text is a strong candidate for background- building activities.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones: Autobiography of Mother Jones
For teachers who like to use first hand documents to extend meaning, using this book alongside a more traditional discussion of the efforts of Mother Jones to organize practically the entire piedmont and Appalachian regions of the country would be very enjoyable for students. Her conversational prose and union organizer’s gift for speaking come across in this very accessible, quickly-paced text. I found the chapter describing the 1902 Anthracite Strike to be very useful as a counterpoint to historical texts about the incident.
John Barlow Martin, “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” Harpers Magazine, March 1948
As a classical piece of investigative journalism, this text is wonderful for inquiry-based learning. See the lesson plan below for a possible application of this classical journalistic text.
Jeff Teitz, “The Great Centralia Coal Fire,” Harpers Magazine, February 2004
Described in detail above, this is an excellent teaching text for investigative journalism. This text would be both engaging enough to mature readers to keep them interested in the fate of the town, and difficult enough to exceed the challenge posed by any standardized test passages. This makes it an excellent choice for an authentic assessment. Again, I recommend using this in a small group reading setting.
John Sayles, Matewan
From the Internet Movie Database: “Mingo County, West Virginia, 1920. Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and gun thugs; Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. Union activist and ex-Wobbly Joe Kenehan, sent to help organize the union, determines to bring the local, Black, and Italian groups together. Drawn from an actual incident; the characters of Sid Hatfield, Cabell Testerman, C. E. Lively, and Few Clothes Johnson were based on real people.”24