Attention English teachers!!! Revel in teaching literature for informational text and argument writing assignments using the genre of historical fiction. History teachers – join forces and use the same literature as background materials to introduce topics.
Widow of the South addresses California history-social studies standards in 8th grade about the Civil War. It also addresses several Common Core standards noted in the body of the text. It has many primary source documents, like diary entries, woven into the text.
A sample student performance task from Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, Appendix B p. 89 modified for this book: Students explain how Robert Hicks, in his novel, Widow of the South, uses choice of words to develop point of view of the three main characters in this historical fiction, a Confederate soldier, a Union Lieutenant, and a slave-owning middle-aged mother, Mrs. McGavock, living on her plantation, Carnton.
A Look at Perspectives: Consider this quote.
“But hell, the Yankees had thrown away more than we’d laid our eyes on in months, maybe years. …The thing I kept thinking about (as we were marching up the pike) was the nightshirts and the pots of jam, lying there on the roadside (left by the Yankees). They made me wonder whether we’d been fighting the same war” Sergeant Zachariah Cashwell, 24th Arkansas. p. 25.
In Cashwell’s quote, ia student of the Civil War learns one of the major reasons that General Lee soon surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Using this quote students practice “Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text Common Core English Language Arts Standard RL1.” Teachers guide students to “detect the different historical points of view on historical events and find the context in which the historical statements were made (the questions asked, sources used, author’s perspectives) California History Social Science Analysis Skills Research Evidence and Point of View #5”
As the reader gets to know these characters, they vicariously experience the nuances of life and come to realize how normal situations are even more complicated by war. Read the quote below.
“Dear Mrs. M,
I cannot raise this boy. I am tore up… I got to get away, to start something new. I want to change… I will send for the boy when I’m right.”
“He didn’t bother to sign it, and I never heard from him again. I never asked John if we could take the boy in as our own son.” Carrie McGavock p. 299.
The author’s choice of words, “I never heard from him again.” lets the students realize how desperate times were when a parent would write a note, and leave it with a child on someone’s doorstep. “I never asked John…” allows students to glimpse a time when asking was ordinary, but these times were extraordinary.
There are plots and subplots, elements of complexity, that will draw even the most reluctant teen-aged girl into this story. Teen, Becky Griffin, for example, “had wanted to grow large quickly so that she would have to spend the spring and the summer answering the questions. I loved a boy and a boy loved me, she planned to say…” Teen aged pregnancy is not uncommon today, and would be a rich field for developing a homework assignment to develop an argument. Students could research the difficulties that Becky Griffin faced with the difficulties faced by young teen-aged mothers today.
Using the next quote teachers could build an homework informational writing assignment.
“She sat down heavily on the stool I had assumed had been meant for me. … She had been silent for days. … Were we strangers? Impossible, and yet what did I know of her, really? … she had been mine…”
‘Do you want to leave? Leave here? Carnton!’
Me is what I meant. (Carrie’s self talk)
‘You can if you’d like.’ …
How did slaves feel about being freed? Students might compare the way different slaves felt about their new freedom, and the ramifications of that freedom. There is primary source evidence in the form of oral histories recorded before the last of the slave generation passed away on websites online in the National Archives. How does this slave compare to other oral histories? How might her responses be compared to Steven Oates, Fires of Jubilee, the story of the South Hampton slave revolt?
The toughest boy in class will have to work hard not to be touched by the grim glories of war. as he reads the point of view of the Union soldier.
“I was proud that such an army, a vibrating mass of butternut gray and sharp metal, screeching that strange wail of theirs, was arrayed against me and my men. I was proud that we were worthy of that. … Why did they keep coming? By the second hour of fighting… when a rebel appeared on top of our entrenchment waving a flag or a rifle around, we’d yank him down and make him a prisoner rather than shoot him. … The dead and dying were packed so tightly that the men were charging right over them, shattering legs, arms and ribs. It was the sound of bones snapping.” Lieutenant Nathan Stiles, 104th Ohio p. 85.
What did the Union soldier mean when he said, “I was proud that we were worthy of that”? Why did he “yank him down and make him a prisoner?”
On Wednesday, November 30, 1864, the townspeople of Franklin, TN, a population of 2,500, had to contend with 2,500 Union and 6,700 Confederate casualties from that 5 hour battle. “The body of Co.F.S.S. Stafford, of the 31st Tennessee, was found dead standing upright, wedged up to his waist in corpses.” p. 407Research becomes a natural by-product of reading this novel for the student and teacher who has never been to Franklin, TN, or seen the trenches of a Civil War battlefield. Even unfamiliarity with Civil War artillery or the structure of the military might spark curiosity easily satisfied at the click of a mouse in order to “Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration Common Core ELA Standard W7.”The Civil War changed the United States forever. Textbooks make blanket statements that students take for gospel without examining them for their veracity. Historical fiction puts heart into sterile statements, and engraves those opinions into the hearts of the students.
To read the entire novel, The Widow of the South, would take a long time for eighth graders who are just starting to read complex, full-length texts. BUT that being said, it is so compelling that many of them might want to read it. I would recommend this as background reading for both history and language arts teachers to build your own perspective on the Civil War.
- 17th Ohio soldier (Garner) Dec 1st diary entry (battleoffranklin.wordpress.com)
- Common Core Standards are a ‘heavy lift’ for districts, educators (eschoolnews.com)