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On Sale: April 01, 1999
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-440-33387-6
Published by : Dell Bantam Dell
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Synopsis

The #1 New York Times bestselling memoir that inspired the film October Sky, Rocket Boys is a uniquely American memoir—a powerful, luminous story of coming of age at the dawn of the 1960s, of a mother's love and a father's fears, of a group of young men who dreamed of launching rockets into outer space . . . and who made those dreams come true.

With the grace of a natural storyteller, NASA engineer Homer Hickam paints a warm, vivid portrait of the harsh West Virginia mining town of his youth, evoking a time of innocence and promise, when anything was possible, even in a company town that swallowed its men alive. A story of romance and loss, of growing up and getting out, Homer Hickam's lush, lyrical memoir is a chronicle of triumph—at once exquisitely written and marvelously entertaining.

Now with 8 pages of photographs.

A number-one New York Times bestseller in mass market, brought to the screen in the acclaimed film October Sky, Homer Hickam's memoir, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, comes to trade paperback with an all-new photo insert.

One of the most beloved bestsellers in recent years, Rocket Boys is a uniquely American memoir. A powerful, luminous story of coming of age at the end of the 1950s, it is the story of a mother's love and a father's fears, of growing up and getting out. With the grace of a natural storyteller, Homer Hickam looks back after a distinguished NASA career to tell his own true story of growing up in a dying coal town and of how, against the odds, he made his dreams of launching rockets into outer space come true.

A story of romance and loss and a keen portrait of life at an extraordinary point in American history, Rocket Boys is a chronicle of triumph.

Excerpt

Coalwood

Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was  at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a  kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I  didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at  least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that  the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into  jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys  discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were  mine.

Coalwood, West Virginia, where I grew up, was built for the purpose of  extracting the millions of tons of rich, bituminous coal that lay beneath  it. In 1957, when I was fourteen years old and first began to build my  rockets, there were nearly two thousand people living in Coalwood. My  father, Homer Hickam, was the mine superintendent, and our house was  situated just a few hundred yards from the mine's entrance, a vertical  shaft eight hundred feet deep. From the window of my bedroom, I could see  the black steel tower that sat over the shaft and the comings and goings  of the men who worked at the mine.

Another shaft, with railroad tracks leading up to it, was used to bring  out the coal. The structure for lifting, sorting, and dumping the coal was  called the tipple. Every weekday, and even on Saturday when times were  good, I could watch the black coal cars rolling beneath the tipple to  receive their massive loads and then smoke-spouting locomotives straining  to pull them away. All through the day, the heavy thump of the  locomotives' steam pistons thundered down our narrow valleys, the town  shaking to the crescendo of grinding steel as the great trains  accelerated. Clouds of coal dust rose from the open cars, invading  everything, seeping through windows and creeping under doors. Throughout  my childhood, when I raised my blanket in the morning, I saw a black,  sparkling powder float off it. My socks were always black with coal dirt  when I took my shoes off at night.

Our house, like every house in Coalwood, was company-owned. The company  charged a small monthly rent, automatically deducted from the miners' pay.  Some of the houses were tiny and single-storied, with only one or two  bedrooms. Others were big two-story duplexes, built as boardinghouses for  bachelor miners in the booming 1920's and later sectioned off as  individual-family dwellings during the Depression. Every five years, all  the houses in Coalwood were painted a company white, which the blowing  coal soon tinged gray. Usually in the spring, each family took it upon  themselves to scrub the exterior of their house with hoses and  brushes.

Each house in Coalwood had a fenced-off square of yard. My mother, having  a larger yard than most to work with, planted a rose garden. She hauled in  dirt from the mountains by the sackful, slung over her shoulder, and  fertilized, watered, and manicured each bush with exceeding care. During  the spring and summer, she was rewarded with bushes filled with great  blood-red blossoms as well as dainty pink and yellow buds, spatters of  brave color against the dense green of the heavy forests that surrounded  us and the gloom of the black and gray mine just up the road.

Our house was on a corner where the state highway turned east toward the  mine. A company-paved road went the other way to the center of town. Main  Street, as it was called, ran down a valley so narrow in places that a boy  with a good arm could throw a rock from one side of it to the other. Every  day for the three years before I went to high school, I got on my bicycle  in the morning with a big white canvas bag strapped over my shoulder and  delivered the Bluefield Daily Telegraph down this valley, pedaling  past the Coalwood School and the rows of houses that were set along a  little creek and up on the sides of the facing mountains. A mile down Main  was a large hollow in the mountains, formed where two creeks intersected.  Here were the company offices and also the company church, a company hotel  called the Club House, the post office building, which also housed the  company doctor and the company dentist, and the main company store (which  everybody called the Big Store). On an overlooking hill was the turreted  mansion occupied by the company general superintendent, a man sent down by  our owners in Ohio to keep an eye on their assets. Main Street continued  westward between two mountains, leading to clusters of miners' houses we  called Middletown and Frog Level. Two forks led up mountain hollows to the  "colored" camps of Mudhole and Snakeroot. There the pavement ended, and  rutted dirt roads began.

At the entrance to Mudhole was a tiny wooden church presided over by the  Reverend "Little" Richard. He was dubbed "Little" because of his  resemblance to the soul singer. Nobody up Mudhole Hollow subscribed to the  paper, but whenever I had an extra one, I always left it at the little  church, and over the years, the Reverend Richard and I became friends. I  loved it when he had a moment to come out on the church porch and tell me  a quick Bible story while I listened, astride my bike, fascinated by his  sonorous voice. I especially admired his description of Daniel in the  lions' den. When he acted out with bug-eyed astonishment the moment  Daniel's captors looked down and saw their prisoner lounging around in the  pit with his arm around the head of a big lion, I laughed appreciatively.  "That Daniel, he knew the Lord," the Reverend summed up with a chuckle  while I continued to giggle, "and it made him brave. How about you, Sonny?  Do you know the Lord?"

I had to admit I wasn't certain about that, but the Reverend said it was  all right. "God looks after fools and drunks," he said with a big grin  that showed off his gold front tooth, "and I guess he'll look after you  too, Sonny Hickam." Many a time in the days to come, when I was in  trouble, I would think of Reverend Richard and his belief in God's sense  of humor and His fondness for ne'er-do-wells. It didn't make me as brave  as old Daniel, but it always gave me at least a little hope the Lord would  let me scrape by.

The company church, the one most of the white people in town went to, was  set down on a little grassy knob. In the late 1950's, it came to be  presided over by a company employee, Reverend Josiah Lanier, who also  happened to be a Methodist. The denomination of the preacher the company  hired automatically became ours too. Before we became Methodists, I  remember being a Baptist and, once for a year, some kind of Pentecostal.  The Pentecostal preacher scared the women, hurling fire and brimstone and  warnings of death from his pulpit. When his contract expired, we got  Reverend Lanier.

I was proud to live in Coalwood. According to the West Virginia history  books, no one had ever lived in the valleys and hills of McDowell County  before we came to dig out the coal. Up until the early nineteenth century,  Cherokee tribes occasionally hunted in the area, but found the terrain  otherwise too rugged and uninviting. Once, when I was eight years old, I  found a stone arrowhead embedded in the stump of an ancient oak tree up on  the mountain behind my house. My mother said a deer must have been lucky  some long ago day. I was so inspired by my find that I invented an Indian  tribe, the Coalhicans, and convinced the boys I played with--Roy Lee,  O'Dell, Tony, and Sherman--that it had really existed. They joined me in  streaking our faces with berry juice and sticking chicken feathers in our  hair. For days afterward, our little tribe of savages formed raiding  parties and conducted massacres throughout Coalwood. We surrounded the  Club House and, with birch-branch bows and invisible arrows, picked off  the single miners who lived there as they came in from work. To indulge  us, some of them even fell down and writhed convincingly on the Club  House's vast, manicured lawn. When we set up an ambush at the tipple gate,  the miners going on shift got into the spirit of things, whooping and  returning our imaginary fire. My father observed this from his office by  the tipple and came out to restore order. Although the Coalhicans escaped  into the hills, their chief was reminded at the supper table that night  that the mine was for work, not play.

When we ambushed some older boys--my brother, Jim, among them--who were  playing cowboys up in the mountains, a great mock battle ensued until  Tony, up in a tree for a better line of sight, stepped on a rotted branch  and fell and broke his arm. I organized the construction of a litter out  of branches, and we bore the great warrior home. The company doctor, "Doc"  Lassiter, drove to Tony's house in his ancient Packard and came inside.  When he caught sight of us still in our feathers and war paint, Doc said  he was the "heap big medicine man." Doc set Tony's arm and put it in a  cast. I remember still what I wrote on it: Tony--next time pick a  better tree. Tony's Italian immigrant father was killed in the mine  that same year. He and his mother left and we never heard from them again.  This did not seem unusual to me: A Coalwood family required a father, one  who worked for the company. The company and Coalwood were one and the  same.

I learned most of what I knew about Coalwood history and my parents'  early years at the kitchen table after the supper dishes were cleared.  That was when Mom had herself a cup of coffee and Dad a glass of milk, and  if they weren't arguing about one thing or the other, they would talk  about the town and the people in it, what was going on at the mine, what  had been said at the last Women's Club meeting, and, sometimes, little  stories about how things used to be. Brother Jim usually got bored and  asked to be excused, but I always stayed, fascinated by their tales.

Mr. George L. Carter, the founder of Coalwood, came in on the back of a  mule in 1887, finding nothing but wilderness and, after he dug a little,  one of the richest seams of bituminous coal in the world. Seeking his  fortune, Mr. Carter bought the land from its absentee owners and began  construction of a mine. He also built houses, school buildings, churches,  a company store, a bakery, and an icehouse. He hired a doctor and a  dentist and provided their services to his miners and their families for  free. As the years passed and his coal company prospered, Mr. Carter had  concrete sidewalks poured, the streets paved, and the town fenced to keep  cows from roaming the streets. Mr. Carter wanted his miners to have a  decent place to live. But in return, he asked for a decent day's work.  Coalwood was, after all, a place for work above all else: hard, bruising,  filthy, and sometimes deadly work.

When Mr. Carter's son came home from World War I, he brought with him his  army commander, a Stanford University graduate of great engineering and  social brilliance named William Laird, who everyone in town called, with  the greatest respect and deference, the Captain. The Captain, a big  expansive man who stood nearly six and a half feet tall, saw Coalwood as a  laboratory for his ideas, a place where the company could bring peace,  prosperity, and tranquillity to its citizens. From the moment Mr. Carter  hired him and placed him in charge of operations, the Captain began to  implement the latest in mining technology. Shafts were sunk for  ventilation, and as soon as it was practical, the mules used to haul out  the coal from the mine were replaced by electric motors. Later, the  Captain stopped all the hand digging and brought in giant machines, called  continuous miners, to tear the coal from its seams. The Captain expanded  Mr. Carter's building program, providing every Coalwood miner a house with  indoor plumbing, a Warm Morning stove in the living room, and a coal box  the company kept full. For the town's water supply, he tapped into a  pristine ancient lake that lay a thousand feet below. He built parks on  both ends of the town and funded the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies,  Cub Scouts, and the Women's Club. He stocked the Coalwood school library  and built a school playground and a football field. Because the mountains  interfered with reception, in 1954 he erected an antenna on a high ridge  and provided one of the first cable television systems in the United  States as a free service.

Although it wasn't perfect, and there was always tension between the  miners and the company, mostly about pay, Coalwood was, for a time, spared  much of the violence, poverty, and pain of the other towns in southern  West Virginia. I remember sitting on the stairs in the dark listening to  my father's father--my Poppy--talk to Dad in our living room about "bloody  Mingo," a county just up the road from us. Poppy had worked there for a  time until a war broke out between union miners and company "detectives."  Dozens of people were killed and hundreds were wounded in pitched battles  with machine guns, pistols, and rifles. To get away from the violence,  Poppy moved his family first to Harlan County, Kentucky, and then, when  battles erupted there, to McDowell County, where he went to work in the  Gary mine. It was an improvement, but Gary was still a place of strikes  and lockouts and the occasional bloody head.

In 1934, when he was twenty-two years old, my father applied for work as  a common miner with Mr. Carter's company. He came because he had heard  that a man could make a good life for himself in Coalwood. Almost  immediately, the Captain saw something in the skinny, hungry lad from  Gary--some spark of raw intelligence, perhaps--and took him as a  protégé. After a couple of years, the Captain raised Dad to  section foreman, taught him how to lead men and operate and ventilate a  mine, and instilled in him a vision of the town.

After Dad became a foreman, he convinced his father to quit the Gary mine  and move to Coalwood, where there was no union and a man could work. He  also wrote Elsie Lavender, a Gary High School classmate who had moved on her own to Florida, to come back to West Virginia and marry him. She refused. Whenever the story was told, Mom took over at this point and said the letter she next received was from the Captain, who told her how much Dad loved her and needed her, and would she please stop being so stubborn  down there in the palm trees and come to Coalwood and marry the boy? She  agreed to come to Coalwood to visit, and one night at the movies in Welch, when Dad asked her to marry him again, she said if he had a Brown Mule  chewing tobacco wrapper in his pocket, she'd do it. He had one and she said yes. It was a decision that I believed she often regretted, but still would not have changed.

Poppy worked in the Coalwood mine until 1943, when a runaway mine car cut  off both his legs at the hip. He spent the rest of his life in a chair. My  mother said that after the accident, Poppy was in continuous pain. To take  his mind off it, he read nearly every book in the County Library in Welch.  Mom said when she and Dad visited him, Poppy would be hurting so much he  could hardly talk, and Dad would agonize over it for days afterward.  Finally, a doctor prescribed paregoric, and as long as he had a continuous  supply, Poppy found some peace. Dad saw that Poppy had all the paregoric  he wanted. Mom said after the paregoric, Poppy never read another  book.

Because he was so dedicated to the Captain and the company, I saw little  of my father while I was growing up. He was always at the mine, or  sleeping prior to going to the mine, or resting after getting back. In  1950, when he was thirty-eight years old, he developed cancer of the  colon. At the time, he was working double shifts, leading a section deep  inside the mine charged with cutting through a massive rock header. Behind  the dense sandstone of the header, the Captain believed, was a vast,  undiscovered coal seam. Nothing was more important to my father than to  get through the header and prove the Captain right. After months of  ignoring the bloody symptoms of his cancer, Dad finally passed out in the  mine. His men had to carry him out. It was the Captain, not my mother, who  rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital in Welch. There the doctors  gave him little chance for survival. While Mom waited in the Stevens  Clinic waiting room, the Captain was allowed to watch the operation. After  a long piece of his intestine was removed, Dad confounded everybody by  going back to work in a month. Another month later, drenched in rock dust  and sweat, his section punched through the header into the softest,  blackest, purest coal anyone had ever seen. There was no celebration. Dad  came home, showered and scrubbed himself clean, and went to bed for two  days. Then he got up and went back to work again.


There were at least a few times the family was all together. When I was  little, Saturday nights were reserved for us to journey over to the county  seat of Welch, seven miles and a mountain away from Coalwood. Welch was a  bustling little commercial town set down by the Tug Fork River, its tilted  streets filled with throngs of miners and their families come to shop.  Women went from store to store with children in their arms or hanging from  their hands, while their men, often still in mine coveralls and helmets,  lagged behind to talk about mining and high-school football with their  fellows. While Mom and Dad visited the stores, Jim and I were deposited at  the Pocahontas Theater to watch cowboy movies and adventure serials with  hundreds of other miners' kids. Jim would never talk to any of the others,  but I always did, finding out where the boy or girl who sat next to me was  from. It always seemed exciting to me when I met somebody from exotic  places like Keystone or Iaeger, mining towns on the other side of the  county. By the time I had visited and then watched a serial and a double  feature and then been retrieved by my parents to walk around Welch to  finish up Mom's shopping, I was exhausted. I almost always fell sound  asleep on the ride home in the backseat of the car. When we got back to  Coalwood, Dad would lift me over his shoulder and carry me to bed.  Sometimes even when I wasn't asleep I pretended to be, just to know his  touch.

Shift changes in Coalwood were daily major events. Before each shift  began, the miners going to work came out of their houses and headed toward  the tipple. The miners coming off-shift, black with coal dirt and sweat,  formed another line going in the opposite direction. Every Monday through  Friday, the lines formed and met at intersections until hundreds of miners  filled our streets. In their coveralls and helmets, they reminded me of  newsreels I'd seen of soldiers slogging off to the front.

Like everybody else in Coalwood, I lived according to the rhythms set by  the shifts. I was awakened in the morning by the tromp of feet and the  clunking of lunch buckets outside as the day shift went to work, I ate  supper after Dad saw the evening shift down the shaft, and I went to sleep  to the ringing of a hammer on steel and the dry hiss of an arc welder at  the little tipple machine shop during the hoot-owl shift. Sometimes, when  we boys were still in grade school and tired of playing in the mountains,  or dodgeball by the old garages, or straight base in the tiny clearing  behind my house, we would pretend to be miners ourselves and join the men  in their trek to the tipple. We stood apart in a knot and watched them  strap on their lamps and gather their tools, and then a bell would ring, a  warning to get in the cage. After they were swallowed by the earth,  everything became eerily quiet. It was an unsettling moment, and we boys  were always glad to get back to our games, yelling and brawling a little  louder than necessary to shatter the spell cast on us by the tipple.

Coalwood was surrounded by forests and mountains dotted with caves and  cliffs and gas wells and fire towers and abandoned mines just waiting to  be discovered and rediscovered by me and the boys and girls I grew up  with. Although our mothers forbade it, we also played around the railroad  tracks. Every so often, somebody would come up with the idea of putting a  penny on the track and getting it run over by the coal cars to make a big  flat medal. We'd all do it then until we had used up our meager supply.  Stifling our laughter, we'd hand the crushed coppers across the counter at  the company store for candy. The clerk, having seen this many times over  the years, usually accepted our tender without comment. They probably had  a stack of flat pennies somewhere in the company-store offices, collected  over the decades.

For a satisfying noise, nothing beat going up on the Coalwood School  bridge and throwing pop bottles into the empty coal cars rolling in to the  tipple. When the coal cars were full and stopped beneath the bridge, some  of the braver boys would even leap into them, plunging waist-deep into the  loose coal. I tried it once and barely escaped when the train suddenly  pulled out, bound for Ohio. I wallowed through the coal and climbed down  the outside ladder of the car and jumped for it, skinning my hands, knees,  and elbows on the packed coal around the track. My mother took no pity on  me and scrubbed the coal dirt off me with a stiff brush and Lava soap. My  skin felt raw for a week.

When I wasn't outside playing, I spent hours happily reading. I loved to  read, probably the result of the unique education I received from the  Coalwood School teachers known as the "Great Six," a corruption of the  phrase "grades one through six." For years, these same six teachers had  seen through their classrooms generations of Coalwood students. Although  Mr. Likens, the Coalwood School principal, controlled the junior high  school with a firm hand, the Great Six held sway in the grades below. It  seemed to be very important to these teachers that I read. By the second  grade, I was intimately familiar with and capable of discussing in some  detail Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Huckleberry Finn  they saved for me until the third grade, tantalizingly holding it back as  if it contained the very secrets of life. When I was finally allowed to  read it, I very well knew this was no simple tale of rafting down a river  but the everlasting story of America itself, with all our glory and  shame.

Bookcases filled with complete sets of Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins,  The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew were in the grade-school hallway  and available to any student for the asking. I devoured them, savoring the  adventures they brought to me. When I was in the fourth grade, I started  going upstairs to the junior high school library to check out the Black  Stallion series. There, I also discovered Jules Verne. I fell in love  with his books, filled as they were with not only great adventures but  scientists and engineers who considered the acquisition of knowledge to be  the greatest pursuit of mankind. When I finished all the Verne books in  the library, I became the first in line for any book that arrived written  by modern science-fiction writers such as Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt,  Clarke, and Bradbury. I liked them all unless they branched out into  fantasy. I didn't care to read about heroes who could read minds or walk  through walls or do magic. The heroes I liked had courage and knew more  real stuff than those who opposed them. When the Great Six inspected my  library record and found it top-heavy with adventure and science fiction,  they prescribed appropriate doses of Steinbeck, Faulkner, and F. Scott  Fitzgerald. It seemed as if all through grade school, I was reading two  books, one for me and one for my teachers.

For all the knowledge and pleasure they gave me, the books I read in  childhood did not allow me to see myself past Coalwood. Almost all the  grown-up Coalwood boys I knew had either joined the military services or  gone to work in the mine. I had no idea what the future held in store for  me. The only thing I knew for sure was my mother did not see me going into  the mine. One time after Dad tossed her his check, I heard her tell him,  "Whatever you make, Homer, it isn't enough."

He replied, "It keeps a roof over your head."

She looked at the check and then folded it and put it in her apron  pocket. "If you'd stop working in that hole," she said, "I'd live under a  tree."

After Mr. Carter sold out, the company was renamed Olga Coal Company. Mom  always called it "Miss Olga." If anybody asked her where Dad was, she'd  say, "With Miss Olga." She made it sound as if it was his mistress.


Mom's family did not share her aversion to coal mining. All of her four  brothers--Robert, Ken, Charlie, and Joe--were miners, and her sister,  Mary, was the wife of a miner. Despite their father's hideous accident, my  father's two brothers were also miners; Clarence worked in the Caretta  mine across the mountain from Coalwood, and Emmett in mines around the  county. Dad's sister, Bennie, married a Coalwood miner and they lived down  across the creek, near the big machine shops. But the fact that all of her  family, and my father's family, were miners did not impress my mother. She  had her own opinion, formed perhaps by her independent nature or by her  ability to see things as they really were, not as others, including  herself, would wish them to be.

In the morning before she began her ritual battle against the dust, my  mother could nearly always be found with a cup of coffee at the kitchen  table in front of an unfinished mural of a seashore. She had been working  on the painting ever since Dad took over the mine and we moved into the  Captain's house. By the fall of 1957, she had painted in the sand and  shells and much of the sky and a couple of seagulls. There was an  indication of a palm tree going up too. It was as if she was painting  herself another reality. From her seat at the table, she could reflect on  her roses and bird feeders through the picture window the company  carpenters had installed for her. Per her specifications, it was angled so  not a hint of the mine could be seen.

I knew, even as a child, that my mother was different from just about  everybody in Coalwood. When I was around three years old, we were visiting  Poppy in his little house up Warriormine Hollow, and he took me on his  lap. That scared me, because he didn't have a lap, just an empty wrinkled  blanket where his legs should have been. I struggled in his thick arms  while Mom hovered nervously nearby. "He's just like Homer," I remember  toothless Poppy lisping to Mom while I squirmed. He called to my dad on  the other side of the room. "Homer, he's just like you!"

Mom anxiously took me from Poppy and I clutched hard to her shoulder, my  heart beating wildly from an unidentified terror. She carried me out onto  the front porch, stroking my hair and hushing me. "No, you're not," she  crooned just loud enough so only she and I could hear. "No, you're  not."

Dad slapped open the screen door and came out on the porch as if to argue  with her. Mom turned away from him and I saw his eyes, usually a bright hard blue, soften into liquid blots. I snuggled my face into her neck  while Mom continued to rock and hold me, still singing her quietly  insistent song: No, you're not. No, you're not. All through my  growing-up years, she kept singing it, one way or the other. It was only  when I was in high school and began to build my rockets that I finally  understood why.
Homer Hickam

About Homer Hickam

Homer Hickam - October Sky
Homer H. Hickam, Jr., was born and raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. The author of Torpedo Junction, a Military History Book of the Month Club selection, as well as numerous articles for such publications as Smithsonian Air and Space and American History Illustrated, he is a NASA payload training manager for the International Space Program and lives in Huntsville, Alabama.
Praise | Awards

Praise

"A thoroughly charming memoir...[an] eloquent evocation of a lost time and place. . . . Mr. Hickam builds a story of overcoming obstacles worthy of Frank Capra, especially in its sweetness and honest sentimentality."
—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

"[Hickam] is a very adept storyteller--.--.--.--It's a good bet this is the story as he told it to himself. It is a lovely one, and in the career of Homer H. Hickam, Jr., who prevailed over the facts of his life to become a NASA engineer training astronauts for space walks, that made all the difference."
—The New York Times Book Review

"Hickam has a great story to tell. . . . Rocket Boys will certainly strike a nostalgic chord in anyone who grew up during the early days of the space race, but its appeal goes beyond that. . . . Hickam's recollections of small-town America in the last years of small-town America are so cinematic that even those of us who didn't grow up there might imagine we did."
—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A stirring tale that offers something unusual these days . . . a message of hope in an age of cynicism. . . . Perhaps we all have something to learn from a half-dozen boys who dared to reject all limitations . . . and resolved to send dreams roaring to the sky."
—The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Unforgettable . . . Unlike so many memoirs, this book brings to life more than one man's experiences. It brings to life the lost town of Coalwood, W.Va."
—USA Today

Awards

WINNER Memphis/Shelby County Public Library "Same Book Same Time" County-Wide Reading Pick of 2004
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

This Reader’s Group Guide for Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys is designed to stimulate discussion and enhance the reader's appreciation of this exceptional book.

About the Guide

It was 1957, the year Sputnik raced across the Appalachian sky, and the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia, was slowly dying.

Faced with an uncertain future, Homer Hickam nurtured a dream: to send rockets into outer space. The introspective son of the mine’s superintendent and a mother determined to get him out of Coalwood forever, Homer fell in with a group of misfits who learned not only how to turn scraps of metal into sophisticated rockets but how to sustain their hope in a town that swallowed its men alive.

As the boys began to light up the tarry skies with their flaming projectiles and dreams of glory, Coalwood, and the Hickams, would never be the same.

“A thoroughly charming memoir ... [An] eloquent evocation of a lost time and place.”
The New York Times

“A stirring tale that offers something unusual these days ... a message of hope in an age of cynicism.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A great read ... One closes the book with an immense feeling of satisfaction.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

About the Author

Homer Hickam was born and raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. He is a full-time writer and lives in Huntsville, Alabama with his wife Linda and their four cats. He is the author of five books including his “Coalwood” memoirs that began with his #1 New York Times best-seller October Sky/Rocket Boys, and continued with The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone. Other books include the nonfiction work Torpedo Junction, which was a Military History Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and the novel Back to the Moon, presently in development for a feature Hollywood movie.

Discussion Guides

1. As you read this memoir, did you begin to feel as if you knew the people involved? Did you like them? Do you think you’d have been happy to live in Coalwood in the late 1950’s? If you had, what position in it would you have wanted? Coal miner? Foreman? Teacher? Housewife? Preacher? Doctor? Rocket Boy or Girl? Football Star?

2. Was this memoir similar in its construction with others that you’ve read? What do you think of the memoir genre? Do you think it might be difficult to write a memoir that is interesting to readers?

3. How would you describe this book? Would you call is a man’s book or a woman’s book? Were you fearful it might be too technical? Is it just a story of a boy with a dream or the story of a small mining town? Or is it something grander and deeper?

4. Do you think Homer Senior and Elsie love each other? What is the principle cause of their conflicts? What is the importance of the mural Elsie is painting in the kitchen? Why is Homer Junior called “Sonny” in the book? Why did his teachers insist on calling him by that nickname rather than the one his mother wanted?

5. How would you describe Sonny’s father? Why does Homer Senior take Sonny into the mine, risking Elsie’s wrath? Why does he arrange for rocket materials when he seems so antagonistic to the rocket building? How does the conflict between his mom and dad motivate Sonny? Why was Geneva Eggers so important in Sonny’s understanding of his father?

6. In the first paragraph of the book, Homer writes that his hometown was “at war with itself over its children.” What does this mean?

7. Nearly all the women in Coalwood are shown to be strong women, a trait they must have to say goodbye daily to their husbands and sons who work in the dangerous mine and may not return that night. Although most of the women of Coalwood make the best of their lot, they want a better life for their children. How can they help this to happen? Are they feminists before the term existed? How about the teachers called “The Great Six?” What’s their role in Coalwood? What is your opinion of Elsie, Sonny’s mother? Is she too harsh with her husband in her attempt to better her life and that of her sons? And Miss Riley? What did it say about her when she stood up for the Rocket Boys against the feared principal, Mr. Turner?

8. Does the book tell a universal story? Could it be set in other times or is it specific to Coalwood and West Virginia in the late ‘50s? The book has been translated into eight languages and people from all over the world say Homer “told their story,” yet they have never held a rocket or even seen a coal mine! The book is dedicated “To Mom and Dad and the people of Coalwood.” Why do you think Homer made that dedication?

9. Many schools from fifth grade to college are studying Rocket Boys/October Sky in their classrooms, including English, math, and science classes. That makes it a pretty unique book! This is an adult book, but it is told from a young man’s point of view. Why do you think teachers are picking this book to study and why are they writing Homer that they think it was their most popular class read ever, sparking the most thoughtful discussion? (See the Web site’s Teacher’s button and the letters from them for many examples.)

10. This story is also about the rewards and costs of nonconformity. Who conforms, who doesn’t and what are the consequences of their actions? Is that a problem today and can this story help those who tend to go against the expected norms? How was Quentin a nonconformist? How about the other boys?

11. In Chapter 22, Mr. Turner, the Big Creek High School principal, wryly tells Sonny, “In the queer mass of human destiny, the determining factor has always been luck.” But in Chapter 26, Homer writes, “There’s a plan. If you are willing to fight hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but you’re still going to end up where God wants you to be.” Are these quotations about human fate really in conflict with each other? How do they apply to the story?

12. Rocket Boys/October Sky is an excellent way to think about and discuss the many steps it takes to achieve a goal. Sonny’s idea of building rockets starts as simply a dream, but then he brings in the other boys and even approaches Quentin, the school outcast. The Rocket Boys first look upon their rocket-building as interesting and fun but then it becomes a challenge to defy expectations. Only much later does the idea of entering the science fairs occur to them. Discuss the importance of incremental steps in your life. Do you believe an incremental approach has validity in all walks of life, academic and otherwise? Why does Quentin believe in the necessity of obtaining what he calls a “body of knowledge?”

13. Miss Riley, the physics teacher, seems to regard education as a challenge and adventure. Sonny rises to meet the formidable task she sets before him. He writes, “I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it”(p. 168). That challenge is taken to the next level by Miss Riley when she gives him the book Principles of Guided Missile Design, saying, “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it”(p. 232). Discuss Miss Riley’s motivational techniques.

14. When Sonny thinks of giving up rocketry altogether, Miss Riley tells him: “You’ve got to put all your hurt and anger aside so that you can do your job ... Your job, Sonny, is to build your rockets.” When Sonny asks why that’s so important, she answers, “If for no other reason, because it honors you and this school”(p. 296). It’s clear that she means it also honors Coalwood. Discuss the concept of civic pride. How do the Rocket Boys help the town? Why are they celebrated in the newspapers? In church? In the Big Store? By both sides of the unionization conflict? Why do so many attend their rocket launches? Is it just because the football team is on year-long suspension?

15. Discuss the motivational aspects contained within this story. How did Sputnik motivate Sonny? Is his mother trying to be motivational after he blows up her rose garden fence with his first rocket? (“I believe you can build a rocket. [Your father] doesn’t. I want you to show him I’m right”(p. 52).) Early in his career as a rocket builder, Rocket Boy O’Dell says, “A rocket won’t fly unless someone lights the fuse”(p. 105). How important is it to find motivation in all our endeavors? Would the boys have gotten to the science fair without being motivated by something larger than themselves?

16. The final chapter in the book (before the epilogue) finishes with the launch of the last rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency. Homer Senior is invited to launch this rocket. Why do you think this invitation was made? Why do you think he accepted?

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

This Reader’s Group Guide for Homer Hickam’s October Sky/Rocket Boys is designed to stimulate discussion and enhance the reader's appreciation of this exceptional book.

October Sky rewards every mother and teacher who ever told children they could be anything they wanted if they worked hard enough.”
— Orlando Sentinel

“400 schools in Canada and the USA [are] using Hickam’s autobiographical October Sky to teach lessons that go beyond typical classroom learning.”
— USA Today, 11/21/00

“This is the third year I have taught Hickam’s Rocket Boys in my classroom. I have developed 10-15 projects related to the novel, including activities demonstrating group dynamics and teamwork. Our students have been through so much. I really feel that Homer’s book helps us to look not only up, but also to the future!”
— Kiki Leyba, teacher, Columbine High School, Littleton, CO

ABOUT THIS BOOK

It was 1957, the year Sputnik raced across the Appalachian sky, and the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia, was slowly dying.

Faced with an uncertain future, Homer Hickam nurtured a dream: to send rockets into outer space. The introspective son of the mine’s superintendent and a mother determined to get him out of Coalwood forever, Homer fell in with a group of misfits who learned not only how to turn scraps of metal into sophisticated rockets but how to sustain their hope in a town that swallowed its men alive.

As the boys began to light up the tarry skies with their flaming projectiles and dreams of glory, Coalwood, and the Hickams, would never be the same.

“A thoroughly charming memoir ... [An] eloquent evocation of a lost time and place.”
The New York Times

“A stirring tale that offers something unusual these days ... a message of hope in an age of cynicism.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A great read ... One closes the book with an immense feeling of satisfaction.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Homer Hickam was born and raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. He is a full-time writer and lives in Huntsville, Alabama with his wife Linda and their four cats. He is the author of five books including his “Coalwood” memoirs that began with his #1 New York Times best-seller October Sky/Rocket Boys, and continued with The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone. Other books include the nonfiction work Torpedo Junction, which was a Military History Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and the novel Back to the Moon, presently in development for a feature Hollywood movie.

DISCUSSION AND WRITING

Commentary provided by Linda Terry Hickam, assistant (and wife!) to Homer Hickam. Linda is also the administrator for Homer's Web site, www.homerhickam.com.

1. As you read this memoir, did you begin to feel as if you knew the people involved? Did you like them? Do you think you'd have been happy to live in Coalwood in the late 1950's? If you had, what position in it would you have wanted? Coal miner? Foreman? Teacher? Housewife? Preacher? Doctor? Rocket Boy or Girl? Football Star?
Commentary: Coalwood had a distinct role for each person who lived there. In order to live in the town, it was required that the head of the household work for the mine in some capacity. The exceptions to this were the teachers at the Coalwood School. Even the preachers were company men!

2. Was this memoir similar in its construction with others that you've read? What do you think of the memoir genre? Do you think it might be difficult to write a memoir that is interesting to readers?
Commentary: A memoir is, as its title implies, a memory of long-ago events. To write Rocket Boys/October Sky, Homer had to dig very deep into his soul to bring back moments that he hadn't thought about for a very long time. He has a great sense of drama and believes that all of his books should be entertaining page-turners. This required even more work during the creation of the book since each "real" event had to be written in such a way that it was interesting and stimulating and fit within an overall pattern. Homer realized early on into writing the book that to simply write down the sequential reality of rocket launches, incidents at the mine, the comings and goings of his friends, his parents, and other Coalwood citizens was not the best way to reveal the truths of the story. To bring Coalwood alive required careful crafting including, in some isolated cases, composite characters. Homer now regrets that he insisted on adding an "Author’s Note" in this book concerning the "liberties" he took in telling the story because some reviewers took that to mean he'd not told the truth. In his note in the follow-up memoir, The Coalwood Way, he wrote: "Memoirs are tough things to write. How can you remember what somebody said or did forty years ago? I don’t have an answer. All I know is I do. I’ve changed a few names and disguised some other folks to protect them but, otherwise, this is pretty much the way it happened, I swear." We suggest a discussion of the current popularity of reading memoirs. Also see www.homerhickam.com and go to "The Rocket Boys" and "Coalwood" buttons for photos and biographies of the real people in the book.

3. How would you describe this book? Would you call is a man's book or a woman's book? Were you fearful it might be too technical? Is it just a story of a boy with a dream or the story of a small mining town? Or is it something grander and deeper?
Commentary: Homer has always said he used the rockets as a metaphor to tell the true story of life in the coal fields of West Virginia, but he also had something else in mind, a weaving of many allegorical themes that begin loosely connected but are gradually wound tighter and tighter until they become as one. Can you spot those themes? Homer gets lots of glowing fan mail from "reluctant readers" who had the book recommended to them, but thought they wouldn’t be interested, then they stayed up all night reading it.

4. Do you think Homer Senior and Elsie love each other? What is the principle cause of their conflicts? What is the importance of the mural Elsie is painting in the kitchen? Why is Homer Junior called "Sonny" in the book? Why did his teachers insist on calling him by that nickname rather than the one his mother wanted?
Commentary: Homer dropped his nickname "Sonny" when he served as an Army Lieutenant in Vietnam. It felt very strange to him to be called by this name at first. He says when people called him "Homer," he kept looking over his shoulder for his father!

5. How would you describe Sonny’s father? Why does Homer Senior take Sonny into the mine, risking Elsie’s wrath? Why does he arrange for rocket materials when he seems so antagonistic to the rocket building? How does the conflict between his mom and dad motivate Sonny? Why was Geneva Eggers so important in Sonny's understanding of his father?
Commentary: Homer believes that this book is in reality his father's book. It rests on the bedrock of Homer Senior's strong, deep beliefs in the town and its everlasting "industrial symphony."

6. In the first paragraph of the book, Homer writes that his hometown was "at war with itself over its children." What does this mean?

7. Nearly all the women in Coalwood are shown to be strong women, a trait they must have to say goodbye daily to their husbands and sons who work in the dangerous mine and may not return that night. Although most of the women of Coalwood make the best of their lot, they want a better life for their children. How can they help this to happen? Are they feminists before the term existed? How about the teachers called "The Great Six?" What's their role in Coalwood? What is your opinion of Elsie, Sonny's mother? Is she too harsh with her husband in her attempt to better her life and that of her sons? And Miss Riley? What did it say about her when she stood up for the Rocket Boys against the feared principal, Mr. Turner?
Commentary: Many young readers write Homer that they are upset that their parents are trying to steer them towards a career or life that they don't want. It's an interesting situation as it seems to occur in every generation all across the world. Coalwood, then, is a microcosm of this tendency. Yet, the Rocket Boys knew that they and nearly all the children of Coalwood were the "designated refugees," destined to leave the town of their youth. Standing nearly alone against this tide was Homer Senior who believed in the town and knew it would die if its children left.

8. Does the book tell a universal story? Could it be set in other times or is it specific to Coalwood and West Virginia in the late 50’s? The book has been translated into eight languages and people from all over the world say Homer "told their story" yet they have never held a rocket or even seen a coal mine! The book is dedicated "To Mom and Dad and the people of Coalwood." Why do you think Homer made that dedication?
Commentary: Homer never knows who's going to show up in his autograph lines to tell him how much they enjoyed this book. They vary from astronauts to coal miners to just about everybody, young and old.

9. Many schools from fifth grade to college are studying Rocket Boys/October Sky in their classrooms, including English, math, and science classes. That makes it a pretty unique book! This is an adult book, but it is told from a young man’s point of view. Why do you think teachers are picking this book to study and why are they writing Homer that they think it was their most popular class read ever, sparking the most thoughtful discussion? (See the Web site’s Teacher’s button and the letters from them for many examples.)
Commentary: Homer is always pleased when teachers and students write and tell him how much they enjoyed studying his book(s). But he is always astonished and a bit chagrined when an English class writes and says how much they loved "the movie!"

10. This story is also about the rewards and costs of nonconformity. Who conforms, who doesn’t and what are the consequences of their actions? Is that a problem today and can this story help those who tend to go against the expected norms? How was Quentin a nonconformist? How about the other boys?
Commentary: Homer believes the Rocket Boys are still "dangerous" when they get together. There's something about their mix of personalities that is a bit volatile! They do miss Sherman, though. He was a soothing influence to their passionate personalities!

11. In Chapter 22, Mr. Turner, the Big Creek High School principal, wryly tells Sonny, "In the queer mass of human destiny, the determining factor has always been luck." But in Chapter 26, Homer writes, "There’s a plan. If you are willing to fight hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but you’re still going to end up where God wants you to be." Are these quotations about human fate really in conflict with each other? How do they apply to the story?
Commentary: This is one of those underlying themes to the book: that destiny is one of life's grandest mysteries.

12. Rocket Boys/October Sky is an excellent way to think about and discuss the many steps it takes to achieve a goal. Sonny’s idea of building rockets starts as simply a dream, but then he brings in the other boys and even approaches Quentin, the school outcast. The Rocket Boys first look upon their rocket-building as interesting and fun but then it becomes a challenge to defy expectations. Only much later does the idea of entering the science fairs occur to them. Discuss the importance of incremental steps in your life. Do you believe an incremental approach has validity in all walks of life, academic and otherwise? Why does Quentin believe in the necessity of obtaining what he calls a "body of knowledge?"
Commentary: Homer now gives motivational speeches citing "Passion, Planning, and Perseverance" as the secret to a successful life. He stresses that planning in a sequential, incremental way is very important in reaching your dreams.

13. Miss Riley, the physics teacher, seems to regard education as a challenge and adventure. Sonny rises to meet the formidable task she sets before him. He writes, "I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it"(p. 168). That challenge is taken to the next level by Miss Riley when she gives him the book Principles of Guided Missile Design, saying, “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it”(p. 232). Discuss Miss Riley's motivational techniques.
Commentary: In Sky of Stone, the third book in the "Coalwood trilogy," Sonny, home from college, promises Miss Riley he will "do his best." She sums up her philosophy to him in two words: "Do better."

14. When Sonny thinks of giving up rocketry altogether, Miss Riley tells him: "You’ve got to put all your hurt and anger aside so that you can do your job ... Your job, Sonny, is to build your rockets." When Sonny asks why that's so important, she answers, "If for no other reason, because it honors you and this school"(p. 296). It's clear that she means it also honors Coalwood. Discuss the concept of civic pride. How do the Rocket Boys help the town? Why are they celebrated in the newspapers? In church? In the Big Store? By both sides of the unionization conflict? Why do so many attend their rocket launches? Is it just because the football team is on year-long suspension?
Commentary: Today, after a long period of decline, Coalwood lives again! Rolling up their sleeves, the people of the town have restored Cape Coalwood (the boy's old rocket range), and sponsor an annual October Sky Festival. Thousands of tourists visit Coalwood every month and the people there take great delight in showing them all the sites in the book. Please see our "Gifts" button on www.homerhickam.com for Rocket Boys shirts and other gift ideas. Proceeds go to the non-profit Cape Coalwood Restoration Association which was formed by the retired miners and their families still there.

15. Discuss the motivational aspects contained within this story. How did Sputnik motivate Sonny? Is his mother trying to be motivational after he blows up her rose garden fence with his first rocket ("I believe you can build a rocket. [Your father] doesn’t. I want you to show him I’m right"(p. 52).) Early in his career as a rocket builder, Rocket Boy O’Dell says, "A rocket won’t fly unless someone lights the fuse"(p. 105). How important is it to find motivation in all our endeavors? Would the boys have gotten to the science fair without being motivated by something larger than themselves?
Commentary: The movie presented the boys' motivation for building their rockets as gaining scholarships for college. In fact, there were never any scholarships offered at any of the Science Fairs they entered, nor did they receive any. Still, despite the differences between the book and the movie, we recommend you see the film. It is wonderfully and artfully made and is very motivational. It might also be an interesting discussion to figure out why Hollywood felt the need to change the story.

16. The final chapter in the book (before the epilogue) finishes with the launch of the last rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency. Homer Senior is invited to launch this rocket. Why do you think this invitation was made? Why do you think he accepted?
Commentary: Homer held back writing this scene until the very last, although he wanted to write it more than any other. It was, he says, a gift to himself to finally write it down and savor that moment.

OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam (hardcover)
ISBN: 0-385-33320-X
$23.95/$32.95 in Canada • 368 pages

October Sky (paperback with 8 pages of photographs)
ISBN: 0-440-23550-2
$6.99/$9.99 in Canada • 448 pages

Also available in trade paperback as Rocket Boys (includes 8 pages of photographs)
ISBN: 0-385-33321-8
$12.95/$19.95 in Canada • 384 pages

Also available by Homer Hickam:

The Coalwood Way
Paperback: ISBN: 0-440-23716-5 • $6.99/$9.99 in Canada • 400 pages
Hardcover: ISBN: 0-385-33516-4 • $23.95/$32.95 in Canada • 318 pages
Audio: ISBN: 0-553-52762-2 • $25.95/$38.95 in Canada

Sky of Stone
ISBN: 0-385-33522-9
Hardcover: $24.95/$37.95 in Canada • 384 pages


  • October Sky by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
  • January 11, 2000
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Delta
  • $16.00
  • 9780385333214

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