Picking apart Rocket Boys

Longtime followers of PBW know that I love a good memoir, especially if it’s a memoir about a female comedian. (See my reviews of Yes, Please, and Bossy Pants..)

Once upon a time, I read a book called Rocket Boys. It’s the book that the movie October Sky’s was based on. It’s about a young man named Homer ‘Sonny’ Hickam, who grew up in a West Virginia coal mining town. He wanted to build rockets and work with Werner Von Braun at Nasa. While he never got to meet Von Braun, he did get to work for Nasa, which is the most amazing thing ever. It’s a sad fact, but an unavoidable one, that kids in coal and steel towns don’t always reach their goals. Actually, that’s not true. Kids all over the world usually don’t reach their goals. That’s why it’s such an enduring thing to crave the stories of those who did.

Rocket Boys is inspiring not only because it’s about kids achieving their dreams. It’s also inspiring because it’s about space. Space travel is a consistent universal dream that seems to be shared by the whole world. I think that if you took a member of one of the few remaining tribes untouched by the outside world, taught them to communicate with us and were able to keep them alive against our germs that they’re not immune to, and you told them that mankind had reached the moon, it would answer a deep, unacknowledged need that he didn’t even know he had. Then, we could introduce him to cold brew coffee and really mess with his worldview.

The point is that there is something about space that draws all of our eyes upward. And it should. Space is a great unknown, and we should never lose our fascination with the unknown.

Space made no bigger mark on a generation than the one that was coming of age when Sputnik launched, rocket boys 2the baby boomers. That generation looked to the sky and wanted so desperately to make it to the moon. I have an inherent fascination with the generations that came before my own. I think I’m trying to fill a hole in my history. While I have many stories of my family, I have heard little to nothing about what the greater world around them was like before I came along. Part of it is my fault. I don’t talk to my family much, and when I was a child I was never interested in hearing those sorts of stories. I never thought to ask. But I never thought to ask partly because great world events weren’t discussed much in my family. It just wasn’t something we talked about.

Reading Rocket Boys, and the following books show a reader the world through the eyes of a young man. A young man growing up in a town that doesn’t know it’s in its last years. The people of Coalwood are realists. They’re miners, wives of miners, sons, and daughters of miners. The men go off to the mine, the women keep the house, and the children go to school. The daughters know they’ll probably become teachers, nurses or wives. The sons, well the sons know they’re going to either become football players, soldiers, or miners. There isn’t a lot of high dreamers in Coalwood.

Homer ‘Sonny’ Hickam is the second son of a man who loves the mine. Homer all but lives at the mine. He’s taught himself advanced mathematics and physics so that he can do his job. He can’t stay away from the mine. Even though he has two sons.

He’s also the son of a woman who hates the mine, and everything about it. She loves her husband, but the mine comes between them constantly. They battle back and forth about the future of their sons, and their own future as well.

Among all of this, raised by two hard people in the middle of a hard town, Sonny started looking toward the moon. And he started building rockets.

While never clearly expressed in the book, Sonny has more in common with his father than either one of them would like to admit. Homer Sr. is a born leader and so is his son. So when Sonny starts building his rockets, he naturally attracts other young men around him. Together, he and his friends start building rockets and shooting them off. Naturally, in a company covered in coal dust, this is often an issue. Sonny fights with his school to teach him the math he needs. He fights for his parent’s permission to build the rockets. He fights for supplies to build them and a space to launch them. And, when the town sees how hard he’s fighting, the town starts fighting for him.

This book was important to me because I grew up in Western PA. It’s not the same as West Virginia, but rocket boys 3there are ties between the two places. Sonny grew up in a coal mining town, I grew up in a steel town. There’s an obvious connection there, and so I feel that there’s a connection between Sonny and me. He had his rockets, I have my stories. We both have the small towns that are more home to us than any one building. Places that will never leave us, even if we leave them. Even, in his case, if the town itself is gone.

If you haven’t read Rocket Boys, I highly advise you check it out. Don’t cheat and just watch the movie, spend some time reading the book. It’s well worth it.


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