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Minna's Patchwork Coat
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Minna and her family don’t have much in their small Appalachian cabin, but “people only need people,” Papa always reminds her. Unable to afford a winter coat to wear to school, she’s forced to use an old feed sack to keep her warm. Then Papa’s terrible cough from working in the coal mines takes him away forever, and Minna has a hard time believing that anything will be right again…until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a coat for her out of old fabric scraps. Now Minna must show her teasing classmates that her coat is more than just rags–it’s a collection of their own cherished memories, each with a story to share.
Table of Contents
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The Right Way of Thinking
You never really know what cabin fever is until you have lived in a one-room cabin during a long winter spell. My favorite cure for the cabin fever was riding in the back of the Millers' hay wagon to church, but I remember one bitter wintry morning when I knew Mama was of the mind to say we weren't going.
"Just too darn cold on Rabbit Ridge. God will understand. There's been enough sickness in this house," she was saying to Papa on her way out to the chicken coop.
I was tapping my foot and thinking hard about a way I could shift the winds a little bit to make sure we got out in that hay wagon. An idea came. I lifted Clemmie up onto my hip to do the wiggle dance with me. He was not even three, but he took my directions all right, especially if it meant something fun.
"Minna, what the devil has gotten into you? You're jumpin' and hoppin' around like Lucifer has got a hot poker at your heels!" said Papa, looking up from stoking the woodstove.
"We are the HOPkins family, Papa, and we got the fever," I said, pinching Clemmie's little sausage toes to make him giggle and wiggle some more.
"Is that right? What kind of fever?" Papa was smiling now, and I loved it when he smiled.
"Cabin fever," I said, and started wiggling like a worm. I put Clemmie on the floor so I could start the scratching. "We got the itch, the stitch, the palsy, and the gout, and we are itchin' all over to just git out!"
Mama had just come in the door, a basket of eggs and the cold air with her. "Itchin' or no, we can't go. It's just too darn cold outside for the Hopkins family today, and Minna's got no coat." There. She had said it.
"Now, Marcy Hopkins, that ain't the right way of thinkin'," said Papa, coughing a little and trying real hard not to. "Nothin' is too much for the Hopkins family. Look here, Jeremy Miller will be drivin' his hay wagon right up to our door, and we ain't going back on my word. We're gonna be in that wagon like I told him, whether the weather be cold or whether the weather be hot!"
"We'll weather the weather whatever the weather, whether we like it or not!" I chimed in, finishing the rhyme for Papa because he was starting to cough again. He had the miner's cough from working too much in the coal mines, and it had nothing to do with the weather.
Papa had a sparkle in his eye. "Minna, fetch me that empty feed sack."
I ran to the pantry, quick as a bunny, and brought the burlap feed sack to Papa.
He scooped up Clemmie from the floor with one big hand and gave him to Mama. "Now, Mama, git your cape and wrap it around you and Clemmie. And I'll just grab your Pinwheel quilt, the one with all the nice bright colors in it," he said, swinging it over his shoulder.
I knew just why Papa loved that quilt best. Working down in the black coal mines all the time meant he hardly ever saw the day or any color but black, and Papa loved bright colors. Now, with the world just white with snow, Mama's colorful quilt was even more of a happy sight to him.
Papa knelt on the wooden floor with the feed sack at his boots and said, "And now, Minna, I want you to hop into this sack. I know it's no coat, but it'll do until I get you the finest coat anyone on Rabbit Ridge ever saw."
I did just as Papa said and hopped into the sack, and he scooped me right up. I was more like a happy, squealing piglet than a bunny. Even Mama laughed. Right then we heard the Millers' horses neighing as they were coming up the hill, and I knew we were going to ride in that wagon.
Mr. and Mrs. Miller were sitting up front with their daughter, Souci, who was seven like I was, but she went to school and I didn't, and that's why she put on airs. She looked at the feed sack I was in and rolled her eyes. My not having a coat was what kept me from being able to go to school, but I was expecting Souci to be happy that I was going to church, feed sack or not.
"Why doesn't Souci like me, Papa?" I whispered in his ear.
He whispered back. "It's because she doesn't really know you, that's all. When you get a coat, you'll go to school and have lots of friends. You'll see."
Mr. Miller jumped out to give us a hand. "Good to see you can finally make it to church, Jack," he said, slapping Papa on the back, making him cough again. Mr. Miller helped Mama settle onto the hay with Clemmie, and then held me in the feed sack so Papa could get in.
"Minna, I better not let you get too close to our horses, or they might think that orange braid you're nibbling on is a carrot, and they'll want to do the same!" Mr. Miller said, laughing.
I spit my braid out of my mouth and held it tight, but then I saw Papa laughing, so I smiled. I didn't like being teased about my hair, but at least Mr. Miller hadn't called it "red, like the devil," the way some of the boys had. I reckoned that if Papa first noticed Mama on account of her red hair, someday somebody as great as my papa would notice me.
Mama, Clemmie, Papa, and I all huddled under Mama's Pinwheel quilt. We were nice and comfy in the hay of the open wagon, with the cold wind nipping just my nose. I looked up at my papa, feeling warm and happy. "I think I'm warmer than if I had a coat, Papa," I told him with all honesty.
Papa looked down and squeezed me. "Minna, you got the right way of thinkin'. People only need people, and nothin' else. Don't you forget that."
Whenever Papa said not to forget something, he really meant it, so I made sure to store what he told me like I would if I had found a silver dollar or an arrowhead or something real special I would want to keep in my box of treasures.
"People only need people," I repeated, and I saw Papa wink at Mama.
Pay Them No Mind
While Mr. Miller was hitching up his horses in the churchyard, Souci jumped out and didn't even look back. She ran up to Lottie Smith, who was wearing the prettiest coat with an even prettier fur collar. The two of them went into the church together, hand in hand. I saw Clyde Bradshaw and Kevin Baker throwing snowballs at each other behind their parents' backs. Kevin pointed at me in the feed sack, probably thinking I looked like a baby in my papa's arms. He started snickering, which made Clyde laugh, too.
I was giving them my snake eyes and would have stuck my tongue out if Mama hadn't said sharply, "Minna, pay them no mind. The worst punishment you can give is to pretend they aren't there, like they don't matter. You don't want their bad behavior to rub off on yours."
"Mama's right, Minna," said Papa, squeezing me tighter. "They want you to get mad, so don't give them what they want. The more you ignore them, the more they'll make fools of themselves and get into worse trouble."
I didn't want to ignore them. I wanted them to get to know me and like me. But I did my best to pretend they weren't there, and sure enough, it happened just as Papa said it would. Inside church we were all singing "Amazing Grace," one of Papa's and my favorites, and I could hear the boys behind me snorting and kicking my bench. I just sang louder. Then I heard Kevin Baker say, "Redheaded witch!"
Ooh, was I boiling, and I so wanted to turn around, but I held on to my hymnal like it was a fish trying to squirm away. The next thing I knew, Kevin Baker's father was grabbing him by the collar and Clyde Bradshaw's mama grabbed him, and those boys were marched right out of church, as red as beets. I turned just enough to see the goings-on from the corner of my eye.
I was so glad I had not made a fuss, because then I might have gotten into trouble, too, and it would have spoiled our whole trip. Nope, this was one day that went right with the Hopkins family.
Little Bear, Little Bear
That winter I remember waking up to the wrenching sound of Papa coughing. I confess that sometimes I liked the sound, because it meant Papa had to be home with us and not down under the earth in the coal mines that might eat him up like they did other papas. His cough meant that he was up closer to the sun and was clean and not covered in black soot all over except for two white circles around his eyes. And being with us meant that no more of the black coal dust was getting into his lungs. Maybe then he'd have a chance to just cough it all out and be well again.
One morning when the snow had melted, Mama put the kettle on and was frying eggs and leftover corn bread, and Papa was sitting in his rocking chair by the window enjoying the sunlight streaming in.
"Mornin', Sunshine," he said, smiling.
I gave him a big hug and buried my face in his chest. I whispered to those black lungs inside of him, "Please get all clear and well."
Clemmie came running over and wanted to be part of the hug. "Come on, Clem," I said. "We got work to do."
"No, I want to play!" He stomped his little bare foot, though it hardly made a sound.
"Well, we have to make you a toy first, and you are going to help me make it."
"Oh, Minna, I really need you to finish carding that pile of cotton," said Mama, desperation creeping into her voice. "I have to get that order done."
Since Papa had been sick with the miner's cough, Mama had worked day and night making quilts to pay for our food. My job was to comb out the weeds in the cotton stuffing that went inside the quilts.
"You two are keepin' lots of folks warm, even if I can't give 'em coal to heat their homes," Papa would say, but he wasn't happy about it. If he wasn't playing his banjo, he just stared out the window from his rocking chair. I think he was trying to catch up on all the sunlight he had missed.
"I can card the cotton today," Papa said. "Let Minna play with Clemmie."
Mama looked doubtfully at Papa. I was the expert carder in the house.
"It won't take Clemmie and me long, Mama. I need to find him something to do so he doesn't get his sticky hands in all that cotton. He makes my job harder."
I had made a doll for myself from Mama's scraps and stuffed it with fluffs of cotton. I called her Fifi and talked to her like she was my friend, since I didn't have any others. Clemmie didn't count, being my little brother and most times a pest. The last toy Mama made for him had fallen apart, so I was thinking maybe I would make him a new friend to play with.
"How about if I make you a little bear to play with, Clemmie?"
"Will it bite me?"
"Nah, only if you want it to."
So a bear it was. Papa helped me draw it, and Mama fixed it into a pattern that I could pin to the cloth and cut out. She showed me just how I should stitch it.
Clemmie was twirling in circles, he was so happy. When I finished sewing most of the bear, I left an opening for Clemmie to stuff the cotton inside.
Then Papa played his banjo for us. He didn't sing much because it made him cough, so we just sang louder as Clemmie stuffed his bear.
"Little bird, little bird, fly through the window,
Little bird, little bird, fly through the door,
Little bird, little bird, fly through the window,
Hey diddle, hi dum, day.
"Take a little dance and a hop in the corner,
Take a little dance and a hop on the floor,
Take a little dance and a hop in the corner,
Hey diddle, hi dum, day."
But then Papa had us change it to "Little bear, little bear, hop through the window." And we also changed "Mary wore a red dress" to "Minna wore a green dress."
And "Poor old crow sittin' on a tree" to "Poor li'l bear, skinny as can be."
Papa said, "Clemmie, as you're stuffing the insides of that bear, you tell it all the things you hope it might be."
Clemmie's chubby little fingers poked the cotton into the head, and he whispered to the bear, "You be nice and not bite, but if you see a bad bear coming for me, then you bite him."
"How about Li'l Bear just telling Big Bear to go away?" I asked Clemmie.
Clemmie shook his head no.
Then Li'l Bear was finished, and we all took turns kissing it to make it "come alive." I looked from Mama's face to Papa's face to Clemmie's, feeling so happy, like all was right in the world. It was another special thing I would have put in my treasure box for safekeeping, if I could have.
If That Mockingbird Don't Sing
The spring air seemed to make Papa feel better. He was awfully busy around the house, mending old boards that had come loose, gathering firewood, and making plans to build a bigger garden and barn. Mama just shook her head, but she was smiling to see Papa so full of life.
One morning Papa grabbed the Log Cabin quilt Mama had made and told me to put on my boots. "Minna, you're coming with me. We've got business with Aunt Nora."
Aunt Nora wasn't really an aunt, but everyone called her that. I guess because she was like everybody's aunt. She was the healer and midwife on the mountain and had delivered a lot of us on Rabbit Ridge. Most folks called on her if they were sick or hurt instead of going down into town to see the doctor. But some folks were afraid of Aunt Nora, saying she was a Cherokee witch with powers she shouldn't be using.
"How come Aunt Nora's so smart about the plants, Papa? Is it because she's old?"
"She's not that old," said Papa. "Her face has just seen a lot of sun."
Mama looked curiously at Papa and said, "That's gonna be a steep walk back for you. Why don't you let me go get what you need, so you don't have a coughing fit?"
"I'll manage. I have Minna with me," Papa said, and I felt so proud. Poor Clemmie was crying in Mama's arms because he couldn't come with us.
I called back to him, "Clemmie, watch over Fifi for me, and I'll find a present for Li'l Bear!" He smiled and nodded through his tears.
Walking down the mountain through the woods, we could hear Mama's pretty voice fading. She was singing,
"Hush, little Clemmie, don't say a word,
Minna's going to buy you a mockingbird.
If it can't whistle and it can't sing,
Minna's going to buy you a diamond ring."
"Minna, you know what's worth more than a diamond ring?" Papa asked me, adjusting the quilt under his arm so he could hold my hand.
"Yep. Mama's singin'," I said, because that's what he always told me.
"Yep, and your voice, too. No diamond ring can do what a pretty song can. You keep singin' and don't ever stop, okay?"
"Okay, Papa," I said, squeezing his hand.
When we reached Aunt Nora's cabin, we saw her grandson, Lester, in the yard, pulling clay pots out of a shallow pit dug in the ground. His skin was even darker than Aunt Nora's, and he seemed big for being just nine years old. Papa explained that Lester and Aunt Nora had made the pots from the clay they dug up from the riverbank. The pots had been hardening in the fire pit and were now cool enough for Lester to lift them out and hard enough to be usable. Lester nodded a hello to us and pointed to the house. I hadn't heard him speak a single word since he had come to live at his grandma's.
Aunt Nora opened the door before we could knock. Maybe that's the kind of thing that made some people call her a witch. She didn't seem like the ones I had heard about, though. She was short with a face that was brown like old leather. Her eyes were as black and shiny as marbles, and I liked looking at them. But I was a little nervous, too. I started sucking on the end of my braid, until Papa pulled it out. He and Mama were always trying to break me of that habit, but my mouth and braid had minds of their own.
"Whatcha have there, Jack?" Aunt Nora asked, first staring at my face, then eyeing the quilt I was now holding, as if she had just laid eyes on something that sparkled. It seemed she could hardly keep from touching it. "A Log Cabin quilt? Is this one of Marcy's?"
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- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers