One of the most fantastic ways to teach children about history is through the art of storytelling. Topics which may appear dry and uninteresting in a textbook can truly come to life if they are conveyed with character and style.
The Green Coat: A Tale from the Dust Bowl Years is doubly successful as a work of fiction in that it instructs about an important period in our country's history while sharing a story that is both heartwarming and inspirational. This novel by first time author and Michigan educator Rosemary McDunn will appeal to a broad audience ranging from middle school readers to adults.
Set in the 1930s in the Great Plains state of North Dakota, The Green Coat introduces us in its earliest pages to twelve year old Tressa Bauer. Hailing from the humble farming town of Dazey, Tressa appears to be a bit of a "Daddy's girl". What her family lacks in financial resources, they seem to make up for in familial bonds.
But shortly after the celebration of her twelfth birthday, Tressa is forced to deal with some very grown up news - owing to losses suffered from a lingering drought, her parents are on the verge of losing the family farm. As auctioneers eventually sell all of their land and property, Tressa's parents are forced to make a horrible decision in order to survive.
Tressa and her older brother Will, the two youngest of the four Bauer siblings, are sent to live in the home of Doctor Heileman near Fargo, ninety miles from the place her parents have found jobs and temporary shelter. Upon her arrival in the Heileman home, Tressa must deal with her new reality. In exchange for their room and board, Tressa and Will become domestic servants in a formerly genteel home that has been ravaged by dust storms. Tressa quickly realizes that the mentally ill Mrs. Heileman is unable to cope with her domestic duties or care for her two year old son, Ben. In addition, Tressa must contend with Claire, the Heileman's daughter who is near Tressa's age but is unkind to her from the start. Tressa longs for nothing more than to leave this place and be reunited with her parents.
"I didn't sleep that night. I swayed between silent fits of rage and fear gripped me so hard that my breathing became labored. Why would God do this to us? I wondered. Ma always said God had a plan. What kind of cruel plan is this?"
While readers of all ages will be drawn to the storyline and personalities presented in The Green Coat, teachers of middle school readers should specifically consider using the text to compliment language arts and social studies curricula. Author McDunn, an experienced educator, has provided an excellent educational resource at the conclusion of the book. For each chapter, a broad cross section of vocabulary words and relevant reflection and discussion questions are provided. An additional section looks at effective tools of figurative language and provides a "treasure hunt" for young readers to spot examples of this literary technique.
A quite stream of spirituality runs throughout The Green Coat as Tressa develops an active prayer life, calling on God to help her overcome what she feels are insurmountable obstacles. Ultimately, Tressa learns to draw on her own reserves of strength to endure and ultimately triumph in her newfound circumstances. What follows is a wonderful coming of age tale where life lessons are learned, tragedies are overcome, and lifelong friendships are forged. The relationships at the center of The Green Coat, those between Tressa and her brother Will and between the two siblings and a young married couple also in great need of healing, make this book a wonderful journey. Along the way, readers young and old will learn about customs and circumstances in a part of our history that differ greatly from today's world. For its wonderful character development, compelling plot, and attention to historical detail, I give The Green Coat my highest recommendation.