Review of Rocket Boys

By Norman Julian
Columnist at large
Dominion Post (Morgantown, WV)
Copyright 1999


Hickam's memoir gets West Virginia right .

At the turn of the millennium (this one and the next), Homer H. Hickam Jr.'s book "Rocket Boys" will tell you how it was in mid-twentieth century West Virginia.

Hickam chose to portray the microcosm of Coalwood in a memoir, a form that has begun to rival the first-person novel in modern American letters.

The story is about four real-life boys at Big Creek High School, in War. In the late 1950's, they decide to build rockets to rival the Russians, who, in October 1957, launched Sputnik and stunned the world, including the hidden "hollers" of West Virginia.

In this NASA scientist's skilled hands (deft at making stories or building real-life rockets), the memior of a life (actually many lives) and its time springs to reality.

I read the book before seeing the movie, renamed "October Sky" and found something to identify with on every page and in every scene.

If you read the written version, you might marvel at how many aspects of our way of life that he could pack into a true-life, coming-of-age memoir.

The coal culture, for example. His dad was superintendent at the Coalwood Mine, where owners and workers were locked in the eternal tension that marked labor relations in our colony.

"Our classes were often interrupted by the rumble of coal cars and the moans of steam locomotives going past," writes Hickam. "Sometimes it seemed as if they would never stop, train after endless train bound for the world that lay beyond us."

In the book's passages you can read both sides of the labor disputes.

Homer's real life brother was a football star who earned a scholarship and is today a coach. You may enjoy the scene where a recruiter from West Virginia University enters the Hickam home before the adoring glance of fathers and sons, but not of Mom. Homer Hickam Jr.

"Big Creek High School sat on their outskirts of War beside the river that gave the district its name. It was a grimy three-story brick building with a carefully tended football field in the front."

Football and mining, two things indelibly linked in our culture. In both you pit your wits, you body and your courage against a formidable foe.

But Homer Hickam Jr., though he tried out for football, was to make a greater mark by "dropping out" of the predominant tough-man culture and entering a tougher one of his own. He led a band of boys who, defying the authority of family and school principal and even the State Police, built a sophisticated rocket and won a National Science Fair scholarship for their work.

Not to mention the admiration of the girls of Coalwood along the way.

Among the more poignant scenes Hickam portrays are those that feature him and his high school buddies cruising in their old car, chasing not only their rockets (which oft times in the beginning go astray) but also the two-legged Coalwood beauties.

Yes, as Homer makes clear, West Virginia women are as gorgeous as they come.

In the movie, the chase scenes are played out with the background of 1950's rock-and-roll music. I never remembered it being "that good" back in the 1950's but Homer does.

There are even subtle insights into the politics of how we were in the scenes of John F. Kennedy visiting the Mountain State on his quest to win the presidency.

Pappa Hickam, a staunch company man and Eisenhower conservative, sees it differently than his son.

In his epilogue, Hickam writes, "John Kennedy had two great visions in his presidency: one to go to the moon, the other to fight for freedom across the world."

"I believed equally in both, so I volunteered for Vietnam, delaying my dream of working on spaceflight."

"The irony was not lost on me when I climbed out of a bunker one morning and found a dud Russian 122-mm rocket buried near by. I inspected its nozzle and thought it crudely designed."

A dominant theme is the tension that boys in the Mountain State, sons of tough Coal Miners, feel when they want to go a separate way.

Mothers, too, play a pivotal, often antagonistic roles. Homer's artistic mother supported his dreams in wondrous ways.

For Homer, those dreams would lead to early agony but eventual triumph- and for us who share his triumphant art, they lead to joy and remembrance in a portrait of us truly rendered.

Norman JulianNorman Julian, a West Virginia University graduate, is the author of four books about West Virginia: "Mountains and Valleys" (essays); "Snake Hill," (portrait of a place); "Cheat" (novel); and "Legends," (history of WVU basketball).
Interview and Article By Norman Julian


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