About the book: When his father is killed fighting for the Union in the War Between the States, thirteen-year-old Tom Carroll must take a job to help support his family. He manages to find work at a bustling ironworks in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, where dozens of men are frantically pounding together the strangest ship Tom has ever seen. A ship made of iron.
Tom Becomes assistant to the ship’s inventor, a gruff, boastful man named Captain John Ericsson. He soon learns that the Union army has very important plans for this iron ship called the Monitor. It is supposed to fight the Confederate “sea monster”—another ironclad—the Merrimac. But Ericsson is practically the only person who believes the Monitor will even float. Everyone else calls it “Ericsson’s Folly” or “the iron coffin.”
Meanwhile, Tom’s position as Ericsson’s assistant has made him a target of Confederate spies, who offer him money for information about the ship. Tom finds himself caught between two certain dangers: an encounter with murderous spies and a battle at sea in an iron coffin…
About the guide:
This guide includes discussion questions intended to provoke thought and insight into the themes of the book, which include duty, family, risk, choices and war.
Brainstorm a list of everything you know about the Civil War. Then, try to categorize the information into subject areas. Finally, circle any information that you think may be relevant to understanding the novel.
1. As the novel opens what is Tom’s biggest problem? What is the exact setting (in both time and place) of the story? How are these clues given to the reader?
2. Why must Tom work? What job does he land? What kind of job do you think you could do to help your family if they needed an extra income?
3. What do you think of the saying “…geniuses were like madmen.” (p.19) Who seems to fit this description best? What other historical figures have also been seen this way? Why do you suppose they get these labels?
4. Describe Tom’s first encounter with the ironclad. Would you want to be first to try out an invention like this? What would be an equivalent invention for our own time? Why is the ironclad so important to the war effort? What is her main objective? How is related to her name?
5. Who is Ogden Quinn? What does he want with Tom? Is Tom wrong for accepting food and coins even though he hasn’t disclosed anything about the ironclad? Defend your answer.
6. Why does Tom begin staying full-time on the Monitor? How does Captain Worden convince other sailors to join Tom? After losing his own father in the war, were you surprised by Tom’s commitment to serve? Would you be willing?
7. What finally happens with the Copperheads? Who would you turn to when in such a situation? How do you know who to trust?
8. Explain some of the difficulties the crew has with the mechanics of the Monitor. What problems arise with communication, air quality, and safety? With cooperation they were able to gain control once more. How? Have you ever worked as a team to accomplish a difficult task like the Monitor’s crew? What did you learn?
9. Compare and contrast the Monitor and the Merrimack. What advantages and disadvantages are on both? How do these play out during the battle? Describe what happens between these two amazing vessels.
10. What was the most interesting thing you learned while reading the novel? How can historical fiction help us better understand an event rather than a straight non-fiction account? Which would you prefer reading and why?
Avi says in the author’s note that even “…the facts— even those put forward by witnesses—can and should be disputed.” (p. 202) Why does he believe so? How can you dispute the facts of an historical event? Research the Merrimack’s version of the events and write a brief account of the battle through the eyes of a shipman on that vessel as an alternative.
Or, research one of the terms from the glossary. Create at least three different projects that show your understanding of the term (pamphlets, powerpoints, art projects, models, primary source summaries, etc.)
Explore these historical treasures at the Library of Congress website: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tr11b.html#civil
On page 51 Tom experiments with a sheet of metal to understand the laws of “force and displacement.” Using the chart below create your own experiments with a variety of materials to see first-hand what will float or sink. Discuss your results.
SINK or FLOAT?