The Rag Coat.

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.”

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4 Responses to The Rag Coat.

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Time for a discussion about the evils of capitalism, I see :-)

  2. Bill G. says:

    I wonder if this book was the inspiration for Dolly Parton’s song, “Coat of Many Colors?”

    As for why miners make so little, it’s a long story. Today they make pretty good wages compared to the past, but they still work in very dangerous conditions. The United Mine Workers has been great at improving things, but it’s up against a lot of social pressure. The mining companies are very good at playing, “Let’s You and Him Fight,”[1] convincing poor white miners they’ll lose their jobs to poor black miners if they dare to ask for better wages or conditions.

    [1] Yes, I learned that from you.

  3. tinderbox says:

    Bill, other way around. Lauren Mills lists Dolly Parton as one of her influences, in the book’s acknowledgements.

    We listened to “Coat of Many Colors,” and I noticed that, in the song, the other children are not magically converted to kindness and understanding when she explains the coat’s significance to them.

  4. Julie says:

    I had been considering this as our next FIAR book. I really like the message, of letting go and trying again after conflict. Such an important life skill. Also, my husband has agreed to get more involved with rowing this book since he is from an area known for coal mining. Thanks for both of your posts on this, Rivka.

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