Rocket Boys

Rocket Boys

4.3 220
by Homer Hickam

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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…  See more details below


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.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

This nostalgic memoir chronicles the rocket launching adventures of Homer Hickam and his friends during their teenage years in Coalwood, West Virginia, in the 1950s. Inspired by the historic Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957, Hickam and his self-proclaimed Big Creek Missile Agency decided to launch a rocket into space. Unbeknowst to them, this seemingly harmless pursuit changes a destiny bound for a life of laboring in Coalwood's bituminous coal mines. Hickam would, in fact, grow up to be a pioneering NASA engineer at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Hickam's plain-spoken narrative captures the wide-eyed innocence of the era and draws the reader into a world of boyhood friendships, school-girl crushes and adolescent dreams. Coalwood, an impoverished small town where a promising future consisted of issuing a young boy a mining hat upon high-school graduation, however, is a less than idyllic place for dreams. Instead it serves as a reminder of the author's youthful yearning for a brighter future. In Hickam's teenage world, characters are observed through idle talk or the occasional encounter, emotions are distant curiosities, and glimpses of life in the 1950s are only frames of reference. This is neither a famous astronaut's autobiography nor a dramatic portrayal of life in Cold War America. It's simply a true-life adventure that tickles the imagination while it evokes a more idealistic time.
­William Travis

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Random House Publishing Group
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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.

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October Sky 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 220 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
October Sky is definitely one of the best books I have ever read. * I think the real turning point in the book and in Sonny¿s life is the Bump. I would say that Roy Lee is my favorite character because he likes to have a lot of fun and is funny and I can relate to that. I had fun reading this book because it is very funny and is very adventurous. I also thought that the theme of this book can be very inspiring to many people and that¿s sometimes rare and I think that is very unique.
I feel like Homer Hickam was very descriptive in October Sky I felt like I was actually at the launch pad when he rockets took off. Mr. Hickam also had a very wide range of vocabulary of when the rockets took off, like (it vroomed off, it wooshed off, it shot off). *My Favorite Part of the book is at the very end when his dad launches off the last rocket, because it seemed like that¿s all he ever wanted was his dad to see what he can do and when his dad launched that rocket his dad not only saw, but felt how much sonny could do.
Cavin Farris More than 1 year ago
congrats to homer for being able to take you back in time with him, makes you feel like you was part of coalwood
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
October Sky is an incredible book about the story of Sonny Hickam, the son of a coal miner. The story takes place in McDowell County, West Virginia. Coalwood is the small town where coal mining is the main job, and most boys go into the mine at a young age.
Sonny¿s father is the head of the mine, and wants Sonny to follow in his footsteps. Sonny does not wish to go into the mine; however, and feels pretty strongly about his decision. One part in the book where he expresses this is when he talks about his dog falling down the mine shaft, and his father bringing home the dog¿s limp body. This and other parts show the worst of coal mining.
The main plot in this book is about Sonny and his friends attempting to build a rocket after seeing the Russian Sputnik fly over Coalwoood. Once that part occurs, the mood of the book changes. Sonny begins to build rockets, fight with his father, deal with women, and learn to be responsible all at the same time.
Homer Hickam dives deep into his life in this book and reveals thoughs he has accumulated over the years. His writing style is easy to understand and gives description so that you can visually tell what he is writing about. This book is great, and audiences of all ages can enjoy Sonny¿s life in October Sky.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hickam, Jr. keeps coming at you with truth after truth, and its breathtaking to see the development of this teen of whom Hickam writes- himself. I couldn¿t stand nearing the end, the pages growing thinner and thinner, until there was only the cover.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like it alot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Homer creates a view of the small coal mining town and it's residents that makes you feel as if you live next door. One of the best books I've read. Should be a must read for teenagers that are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, or who they want to be....
vencen_wv More than 1 year ago
Book title and author: October sky Homer Hickem October sky is an ok book its about a small mining town called coal wood .A boy who wasn't very wealthy and didn't have much and one day decided to get all of his friends together and build a rocket. After blowing his moms fence up he started thinking about it and they made some pretty good rockets. Description and summary of main points They got into trouble for shooting one off on company property homers dad told them no more rockets. So they went to a whole new place. I want say so I want ruin it for you. Your final review This is a Farley good book so I encourage every one who reads this to read the book .This seems to be a good book review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its a really good movie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great movie, great book, great story. October sky is the most inspirational movie and story anyone and anything will ever see or hear.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I only watched the movie but i think this book was super awesome! I definetly recomend it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best book I've ever read.
Bill Hoyt More than 1 year ago
Homer Hickham tells a very inspiring a true story of him overcoming great odds to become a young rocket scientist. It's a fun read.
Shawn_wv More than 1 year ago
By Shawn Salmons This book isn't highly recommended by me and throughout the essay I will explain why. This book is about a young group of boys, who wanted to fire off rockets but as they try as many people that can stop them try to. The more the boys fire the better they become, but when they think everything's going well tragedy strikes and cops show up at their school. When the boys fire off one of their first successful rockets they "burn down a forest." The seven rocket boys have to use their wits to overcome most of the situations they get themselves into. Even when push came to shove they pulled themselves out of the situation. At whatever cost they had to suffer whether it was police or even an injury they overcame it. I do not think the book is worth reading I never really understood why the boys wanted to fire rockets or what even caught their interest. The book may be good for some other people but the book just wasn't for me it wasn't a bad book but in my opinion I just didn't like it. The few parts in the book that were good is when the young boy (Homer Hickam) made a oath to work for his family sake. The young boy was very brave to do so and I respect him for what he did. Every situation of this "October Sky" was a stunning/shocking one but somehow the boys found a way to overcome the bad and embrace the good. No matter the situation the boys did everything and anything they wanted to, for themselves and anyone they wanted to help. The ending of the story was a very shocking ending as well the boys understood everything that was thrown at them. The end was a scholarship for many and a very important lesson in life. The rockets were finally perfected to go state and won a fair prize and won many scholarships for all the "Rocket Boys
DD24 More than 1 year ago
The true story of Homer Hickam Jr.'s rise to being one of the most famous rocket scientists ever is truly an awe inspiring story. The book October Sky takes place in Coalwood, West Virginia and tells the tale of Homer Jr. building and experimenting with rockets. I thought that the book was great because it showed that even the most hopeless dreams can come true. Homer faced many challenges throughout the book and overcame every single one of them to reach his dream. For example, he overcame his father's disapproval of building experimenting with rockets and the scarcity of materials where he could build his rockets. I also like the story because Homer's character is real. He constantly strives to make better rockets so that he can beat the Russians in the space race and because he wants to be just like Dr. Wernher von Braun. Dr. Wernher von Braun is Homer Jr.'s role model and it because of him and other people close to him like Miss Riley and Homer's Mom are what influence him to build rockets. I give the book a "Two Thumbs Up." It left me satisfied and wanting to read more about the life of Homer Hickam Jr. I recommend for all ages and think everyone should read this book in their lifetime.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This story is very descriptive. It is exciting and funning. Sonny is very smart and solves most of his problems. He also stands up for what he believes in even though his dad does not believe in him. His dad must have had a hard time teaching him self calculus, but he is very smart.
*In this story when the kids at the science fair took Homer¿s rocket equipment I thought he would lose. Home had a hard life and worked through it. Homer didn¿t let anyone in his way. It was his dream and he wasn¿t going to give up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
October Sky is a good book it made me get very into the book a little ways through. I liked how sonny gets very interested into rockets and wants to get one flying really far. Spoiler alert! My favorite part of the book is when sonny gets drunk. It¿s very funny but not good.
He lives in coal wood and he loves to build rockets. He builds a lot of rockets and has tried different types of nozzles to see if it is getting better. The book is very interesting. If you¿re the type of reader that likes dramatic happenings and like to read a lot then I would read this book.
Anonymous 8 months ago
A nice story Well developed characters
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is really good and deep in meaning. Rocket Boys is also very interesting.
maxAM More than 1 year ago
I think if you want to have a good book to read for a while, I'd suggest you read the Rocket Boys book. If a reading teacher was to choose a  book she would probably choose this book because it has really good detail.In this story, Homer Hickam wanted to be a rocket builder but he was color blind which takes away a lot of opportunities, so he decided to become a trainer fro people to go into space.In conclusion, He didn't get to what he wanted to do with his life but got to do the closest thing to it,became an astronaut trainer,He was probably sad when he  heard that he couldn't do what he wanted to do with his life but he went to be a trainer and he was happy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fun and insightful look at Homer(Sonny) Hickam's early life.
solvigbirch More than 1 year ago
I'd seen the movie, October Sky,  a few years ago, and decided it was time to give the life story of  Sonny Hickam a look.  I found young Sonny an uncomplicated boy; the youngest of two, a science student vs. a  high school athlete and at the time of the story, a lifelong resident of Coalwood, West Virginia.  This was all he knew.  Then, thanks to a teacher's belief in him, Sonny is driven to build rockets and chase the idea, his friend Quentin's dream of launching - both rockets and his circle of friends into the science fair competition.  This  was the start of his ultimate career pursuit, a way out of a his hometown mining  community and a hard-scrabble life.  Homer's boyhood adventures, his  loyal school friends and teachers, his on-going friction with  his older brother- star football player  and his sometimes sparring partner, Jim.  Homer, Sr. favored the oldest son and misunderstood his youngest.  The descriptions, especially of Jim's before-his-time fashion, and Sonny's lack there-of, made it easy to realize the tensions between the two boys.  Their mother, entrenched in the role of housewife in Coalwood with big dreams of moving to a seaside cottage - handles it all with equal aplumb - real resilience and humor. The ever evolving landscape she painted, was wonderful as it illustrated her yearnings. The portrait of Sonny's father, as hard-headed and hard-working, symbolized the uphill battle of the miner, working to provide for his family.  The turnings, trials and journey of this young man, his family, his town and his triumphs at the story's end, made for a read that caught me by surprise.  I don't know how I feel about rockets, but I do know I cheered for the Rocket Boys and the town they lifted to new heights.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for school and it is pretty enjoyable. It provides an interesting topic. The best thing is how the whole story is true. Great story. :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I find the memoir of homer hickam's young life a great tale of rising above standards
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful memoir of a coal miners son daring to dream of a future in space. Highly recommended.