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In My Father's House

Ann Rinaldi

Theme: War and its Effect on Families
Grades: Grades 7-8

This historical novel set in the Civil War era was first published in 1993 and is based on the extraordinary experience of one family in the South. The Civil War began with shots fired at Will McLean's house at Manassas and—by an amazing quirk of fate—ended with General Lee discussing surrender in the Appomattox house where McClean had moved his family to escape the war. Through the eyes of the narrator, Oscie Mason, readers can explore the impact of historical events on one family from 1852—when Will McLean becomes Oscie's new stepfather—to the end of the war.

Note: Taken out of context, some language and attitudes, particularly towards African Americans and the issue of slavery, may be offensive to some readers. These sentiments are intended to reflect the point of view of particular historical characters.

  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: The Civil War.
    Invite students to share what they know about the American Civil War. Ask them to discuss what the South and the North were like right before the Civil War, what caused the war, what the war itself was like, and why the North won. Record students' responses in chart form on the board and discuss the topics, correcting any misconceptions. As students work through the novel, they might discuss the relevant topics again, adding to or altering the chart appropriately.
  1. Mapping the Civil War.
    Post a large map showing the country at the time of the Civil War, or highlight the appropriate states on a current map. Help students note which states joined the Confederacy, which stayed in the Union, and which areas were not yet states. Students can use pushpins to mark battles and other important sites as they work through the novel.
  1. The Story Behind the Picture.
    The Civil War was the first major war to be photographed. Ask students to find out about the photographic portraits soldiers had taken of themselves to send to loved ones. Have students choose the subject of one photograph to find out more about. They could relate the soldier's story to the class in an oral presentation or a dramatic monologue in the character of the soldier.

  1. Patriot or Profiteer?
    Should Will McLean be praised or criticized for his role in the war? Have students form teams to debate the issue. They should weigh McLean's gift of the plantation to the Confederate army, his work as an unpaid quartermaster, his speculating, his initial refusal to feed the starving army, and his offer of his house for the surrender, as well as any other points they find relevant.
  1. Exhibition of Life in the South.
    This project will give students an opportunity to learn more about life in the South before the Civil War. First, students will gather relevant details from In My Father's House. Then they will do additional research. Finally, they will create a class exhibit that can be shared with others in the school.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Have the class discuss and take notes on what they remember from the novel about Southern life. Smaller groups might look at particular sections of the novel, before the class pools its information.
  • Divide students into small groups, each of which will research a particular aspect of life in the South; for example, plantation life, fashion, education, agriculture, cultural values, religion, or politics. Next, groups should decide how to divide the library research, such as by source—for example, encyclopedias, journals, or books—or by topic. Encourage students to seek advice from librarians, social studies teachers, and other knowledgeable people. Encourage them to collect or create visual materials that they can display, if possible.
  • Each group will be responsible for presenting findings in an effective way. They might make oral presentations, perhaps in the form of a "guided tour" through the exhibit. Set aside classroom time for each group to make its presentation and answer any questions.
  1. Act One, Scene One!
    Have students read one or more historical accounts of what took place between Grant and Lee in the McLeans' parlor or of the surrender at the courthouse. Then have them imagine that one of the characters, such as Willie, got a close look at the proceedings by hiding nearby. Instruct them to write a scene in which that character describes the historic event to the family.