The Breaker Boys

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by Pat Hughes. Novel. 256 pages. Grades 5-9.
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Review

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Twelve-year-old Nathan Tanner has been kicked out of yet another boarding school to return home to Hazelton, PA. His mother died several years ago and his father has remarried. His family owns one of the coal mines and Nate makes friends with some breaker boys -- boys who work sorting coal in the mines. When the boys become part of a strike at the mine, Nate's loyalties are torn.

Hughes brings us into a coal mining town at the turn of the century through the eyes of Nate Tanner, the middle son of a family of mine owners. Nate sees himself as unloved and unwanted. He's been kicked out of several boarding schools where he's been rejected by students and faculty alike.

Back in Hazelton for the summer, Nate's stepmother, Anna, tries to reach out to him as does his older sister and one brother, but Nate's response is largely in anger. Nate does like baseball, however, and it's through baseball that he makes friends with Johnny and some other breaker boys. The classism is evident as Nate lies to the boys about his own family, knowing that they would reject him if they knew who he was. He gets to know and appreciate their immigrant families and envies the open love and loyalties there even as he is horrified by the way they must live and work. He lies to his own family about where he goes each day, knowing that they would forbid it.

Nate's grandfather is the patriarch of the family and holds a hard line in dealing with the miners, refusing to deal with the union leaders because they are not his employees.

Things come to a head when a strike is called and Nate learns that the sheriff has deputized and armed people to break the march. The resulting Lattimore Massacre actually did happen and an author's note explains its significance and the results of that terrible day.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • Nate changes in this book in many ways, but so do several other characters: Nate's father, Johnny, and even grandfather. Why and how do you think they change?

  • Nate hides the fact that he plays with toy soldiers. What significance do you think those soldiers have and what do you think about what Nate finally did with those soldiers?

  • Nate's brother Fred is a bully. Why do you think he acts the way he does?

  • Nate's friendship with Johnny and the other breaker boys seems doomed from the beginning. Are such friendships possible in real life? Do you have friends whose life is very different from yours? How do you manage it?

  • Which characters in the story do you think are right?

  • The author has tried to present both sides of the issues in the book. How well do you think she did? Did you end up understanding why there was conflict and why each side did what it did? If you were more sympathetic for one side than the other, do you think that was because of the book or because of other things like your own background?

  • If you could have intervened at any point in the story, what would you have done or said? Do you think that would have made a difference?

  • At the end of the book, Nate is heading off to boarding school. Why do you suppose the author wrote that ending? What ending would you have chosen?
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Activities

  • Make a list of all the characters in this book and beside each name, write two or three words you would use to describe him or her. Would those words change from the beginning to the end of the book?

  • Most of the characters in the book want or expect something of Nate. Put Nate's name in the middle of a page. On the edge of a large circle around Nate's name, put the names of those characters. Draw a line from each character to Nate and on that line put what he or she wants Nate to do or to be.

  • Many of the coal mining jobs are named and defined in the story. Make a list of them and then find out which of these jobs in the mines are still necessary.

  • Find out as much as you can about Hazelton, Pennsylvania today. Is coal mining still an important industry there? Are the miners unionized? Are there still breaker boys?
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Related Books

  • Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton, 1999 ISBN 0395979145. Order Info.). Nonfiction.

  • Stotts, Stuart. Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin (Big Valley Press, 2005 ISBN 0976537206. Order Info.)
    A quiet fictionalized biography about the work of Lutie Stearns in bringing boxed sets of books which circulated from town to town around the turn of the century providing the first free libraries many communities had ever had access to. A good nonfiction companion to novels and picture books set in this time period.

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