Rocket Boys: A Memoir

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Overview

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. Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Homer Hickam's lush, lyrical memoir is a marvelously entertaining chronicle of ...

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Overview

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. Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Homer Hickam's lush, lyrical memoir is a marvelously entertaining chronicle of triumph.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
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

From the Publisher
"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743565066
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 12/5/2006
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Abridged
  • Sales rank: 522,587
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 5.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Homer Hickam

Homer H. Hickam Jr. is the author of the bestselling The Keeper's Son and many other books, including The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone. He and his wife and cats share their time between homes in Huntsville, Alabama, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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Read an Excerpt

Rocket Boys

A Memoir
By Homer H. Hickam

Turtleback Books Distributed by Demco Media

Copyright ©2000 Homer H. Hickam
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0606189114

Chapter One

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.



Continues...


Excerpted from Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam Copyright ©2000 by Homer H. Hickam. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

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Introduction

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.

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Foreword

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 thewomen 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?

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Reading Group Guide

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 womenin 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?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 81 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 8, 2009

    A Real Page Turner.

    "Whoosh". Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam JR, is a memoir about a kid named Sonny Hickam, who builds rockets with his friends in Coalwood, West Virginia, in 1957. In the this book, Sonny's dad starts out by ignoring him because Sonny wanted to build rockets with his friends, but, Sonny builds rockets anyway. He uses scrap pieces of metal from the mine and he buys some things with his money. Sonny and his friends build rockets in his basement with different gases and things. Their first rocket fails and takes out Sonny's mother's fence. Read it to find out what else happens!


    I thought think that this book was was a great book. It is a great book for all audiences. Children, and adults. You should read this book because it is all about how a kid built something great, even when his dad said he could not accomplish anything. I think that this book taught me a lot about how to stick to things that I am doing. I also think that it taught me that with your friend's help, you can do anything.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2013

    Rocket Boys is a very inspiring book because it¿s about a boy an

    Rocket Boys is a very inspiring book because it’s about a boy and his friends creating rockets and Homer Jr. going behind his fathers back to do what hes dreamed of doing. Homer Jr. is different than all the other kids and that’s what makes him special.The book Rocket Boys was very inspiring because it is about this boy and his friends building rockets. They end up doing there experiment in a science fair they actually win. Then Homer Jr’s teacher is in the hospital when he gets back from Indianapolis. Homer Jr. has a hard road home. Homer Jr. and his friends made a rocket epically for her. They put her name on it and then Homer Jr.’s dad launched it for them. I thought the book was very good because it just made me want to follow my dream and he just inspired me so much. I loved reading his book and I also got to meet him. His words were very inspiring and encouraging because this book was based on a true life event. I was touched when he made a rocket for his teacher. She was also special because she encouraged Homer. I thought the book was very good because it just made me want to follow my dream and he just inspired me so much. I loved reading his book and I also got to meet him. His words were very inspiring and encouraging because this book was based on a true life event. I was touched when he made a rocket for his teacher. She was also special because she encouraged Homer. In, Conclusion the book was a marvelous book to read. I would suggest this book who likes intresting books. This book is based on a true story so I recommend it.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2005

    The same book as October Sky

    Rocket Boys is the original title of the book that is also known as October Sky. I notice under the review of that book on the site that so many students have just seen the movie and not read the book. The clues are as follows: Scholarships. There were no scholarships in the book, only the movie. The Rocket Boys. In the movie, there are four. In the book, six. Sonny (not Homer as in the movie), Roy Lee, Quentin, Billy, Sherman, and O'Dell. Working in the mine. Sonny (Homer) did not work in the mine in the book. That was only in the film. I could go on and on. Students, read the book. It is very different and better than the movie. I swan. And if you never heard of 'I swan', then you definitely did not read the book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2004

    Spectacular all the way through

    Great book. Depicts with great detail the awesome story of Homer Hickam

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 7, 2014

    I read this book at my school, and this is a pretty interesting

    I read this book at my school, and this is a pretty interesting story.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2011

    Rocket Boys Take Off

    In the city of Coalwood, kids have few choices for their future. They could go to work in the town mine, go into the army, or get a football scholarship. Most of the kids accept this and go on, yet this is not the Case for young Homer Hickam JR. After he hears about Sputnik and watches it cross the sky above his head, he decides he wants to go down to Cape Canaveral and work with Dr. Von Braun in building rockets. Finding no books to help him at all, Homer must start from the very basics and work with his friends, Roy Lee, O'Dell, Sherman and Quentin, to learn all there is about rockets and how they work so they can win the science fair and possibly get a scholarship. The major message of this book is to not give up on your dreams, that enough work can get you to where you want to go. I really liked how ethos was largely weaved into the book to give the reader a strong connection with Homer, along with explaining all the mechanics out for the reader to understand. I have no dislikes for this book. Somebody should read this if they just want a good story overall, or if they're interesting in aerospace engineering. My overall rating for this book is 5 out of 5.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2006

    The best memoir ever

    Rocket Boys is the most-picked book for community reads across the country. It is considered a classic. Nearly every school has it on its reading lists. Notice that since it came out, it consistently gets five stars from every reader, no matter their age or interests. It is a compelling work. Once you start it, you'll find it difficult to put down.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2006

    the best book in the world

    this is definitely my favorite book of all time. this book has forever been engraved upon my heart, and i am glad that i have been so fortunate as to discover it after many years of searching for something to obsess over. whenever i read this book, i have great difficulty with putting it down. the end makes me cry like a BABY, and i always hate it when i finish it for the third or seventh or twelvth time around. it is just such a timelessly immortal memoir, and i'm honestly glad that i took the time to read it. it is really a beautiful book, and i will strongly challenge anyone who thinks otherwise.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2005

    Far better than the movie

    A wonderful read. The book is far better than the movie. You will not be disappointed.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2005

    Rocket Boys: A Memoir

    This was a great book, all of the conflict with his brother, father and sometimes his mother really made the book a more mature read. The movie ommitted some important aspects, the book helps us understand much more.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2005

    Rocket Boys: A Memoir

    This book captured the harsh life of West Virginia coal mining, along with the hope of a bright future somewhere else. It also had the right amount of science to be understandable but not complicated or boring.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2003

    Coalminers to the Moon!!!!!!!!

    'Rocket Boys', by Homer Hickam, Jr. a book that was both exciting and heartfelt. This book was based on a true story and as you read you feel a part of the town and a friend with the rocket boys themselves. Ther dedication and pation for learning and each other helps this book capture you and grow with the characters life experiences. The book 'Rocket Boys' takes place in a town in West Virginia called Coalwood. The town's main business is that of miners and everything in the town revolves around the mining business. The super intendent is Homer Hickam, Sr., he has a wife and two sons. One of his sons, Homer Hickam, Jr., AKA Sonny, has a passion and interest in space. He recruits he buddies to help him study and master the skills of building a rockets. They form a group called the BCMA which stands for Big Creek Missle Agency. Throughout the book they begin to ask thier assistant in learning about the structure and the dictance of the rockets. The BCMA, which includes Sonny's friends Quentin, Roy Lee, Sherman, O'Dell, and Billy try many different structures and fuel to master their rockets. Sonny's mother encourages him in his rocket endeavors as she does not want him to go into the minning business. Sonnys father's feelings were he wants Sonny to become an engineer for the mine, however he does assest them with materials later in the novel. Sonny loves his mother deeply and longs for his fathers approval. All the relationships, between friends and family make this a touching experiance. My favorite part was when the boys shot off thier first rocket, and they blew up Sonny's mom's rose garden fince. My least favorite part is when Ms. Riley becomes sick. Allthough she was one of Sonny's biggest advocates it is also sad for him when she is not there to support him as a teacher and friend throughout the science fair. Rocket boys will be a book I will remember forever and is one of my favorites. It is both touching and interesting. My feeling are it is a must read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2003

    A book that makes you think

    Rocket Boys not only subtly hints at a changing time in Americas history but it also shows teens that you should shoot for the stars. I first read this book 5 years ago and found my self reading The Coalwood Way and Sky of stone shortly after.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2003

    If it were possible I'd give it six stars! - A very well written book.

    It's surprising how the small mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia could've developed such a brilliant author, and rocket scientist. I've bought all three of his Coalwood books (in the trilogy) and own a fourth, We are not Afraid (related to Cooalwood but not necessarily in the series). Anyway ---- these are my steps to enjoy the books the way I have. (1) Watch October Sky (the movie, 1999). (2) Compare the movie to this book, Rocket Boys as you read it. (3) Exhale a great sigh of satisfaction as you finish Rocket Boys. (4) Read the next books in order: The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone. Or you could do this: (1) Watch October Sky. (2) Read up to Chapter 22, having read through Auks XXII-A,B,C,D (3) Read The Coalwood Way (starting with Auk XXII-E). The Coalwood Way is just a breakdown within Homer's high school years of winter 1959. (Sky of Stone takes place during Homer's summer of 1961, a year through college). (4) Finish Rocket Boys. (5) Read Sky of Stone.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2001

    The Best

    This book is the best book I have ever read. I was upset that i finished it because i enjoyed it so much. Being in my teen years, I related with the book so much through Hickam's views. Before reading this book, i hated reading but now i enjoy it.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2001

    I Thought This Book Was Outstanding

    I thought the book Rocket Boys was a outstanding book. This book had much detail in everything it said. This book also played with your feelings, sometimes when reading the book I would get sad when the book got sad, and get happy when the book got happy. I feel that Homer Hickam Jr. did a great job with writng the 'Rocket Boys' and I can't wait to read 'Back to th

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2000

    An Excellent Story Enjoyed By Anyone and Everyone

    Whether you are into space or rocketry or not, this book is page-turner, and once you get into it, you will not want to put it down. It is a story of hope, courage and determination. It shows that if you work hard enough you can accomplish anything that you set your mind too. When you reach the last page you don't want the moving true story to end. Homer Hickem is a true American hero and a very gifted story teller.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2000

    Inspiration

    Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys is and will always be a great inspiration to me and to nayone else who reads his book. To be yourself, to be someone. It's all that Sonny wants and he works for it. He finds himself and through his book, I am too. Read it, you won't be disappointed.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2014

      Rocket Boys is a truly inspiring story about Homer Hickam¿s dr

      Rocket Boys is a truly inspiring story about Homer Hickam’s dream of working with Warner Von Braun at Cape Canaveral.  Throughout the story you start to like homer and feel his pain or his joy, Hickam really draws you into his past life.  One problem Homer encountered was his dad’s refusal of him making rockets.  Another problem, was the company not giving him materials. Third of all his brother and his football cronies were taking their anger out on Homer.  It was a very good book, I have read better but It was still a great book. I feel this book could have been better with some more action.Overall a great book that will entice many young rocket scientist “want-to-be”s. .

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2014

    Its ok

    Its ok

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 81 Customer Reviews

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