This week we’ve been studying The Rag Coat, a tearjerker of a book by Lauren Mills. When Minna’s coal miner father dies of black lung disease, the neighborhood women make Minna a patchwork coat out of rags so that she can attend school. She is viciously teased by the other children for her ragged coat, until she shows them that the rags came from their own much-loved castoffs and that each one carries a story about a neighborhood family.
The first day, we read the book and then spent some time talking about teasing. When Minna is teased by the other kids, her first impulse is to run away and never go to school again. Then she remembers that her father used to tell her that “people only need people,” and goes back to try to connect with the other kids and make them understand. Alex was skeptical that this would actually make the bullies nicer, and I confess that the big turnaround at the ending seems rather unrealistic to me, too. But she has a tendency to brood over social friction between kids, and I was trying to plant the seed of an idea about letting go and trying again.
We also studied the U.S. map and identified the major coal-producing regions in the U.S. We agreed that Minna’s family seemed to live in Appalachia, which we’ve already visited in several other books, and found the Appalachian mountain states. Alex is descended from coal miners – my mother’s whole family – so we looked up where they lived and talked about my mother’s grandfather going to work in the coal mines when he was just Alex’s age. That led to a long conversation about child labor. We talked about why children went to work, how child labor led to generational poverty, and why people worked to end child labor.
She’s had one persistent question this week: “Why were coal miners so poor?” I’m struggling to find a better answer than, “The mine owners could get away with not paying them very much, and so they didn’t.”