If you are a 14-year-old boy living in a West Virginia mining town in the 1950s, your horizon is defined by the age worn Appalachian peaks enclosing your valley. Your choices when you grow up are to go down into the coal pits like your daddy, your uncle and the daddies and uncles and brothers of your school mates --- or, if you're big enough and lucky enough, a college football scholarship will provide your escape from the inevitability of black lung disease, near poverty and the drone-like existence of the miners.
If, however, you would rather read books on the front porch than catch a football on the coal-dusted playground in Coalwood, West Virginia, that line of hills on the horizon can seem narrow indeed.
On October 5, 1957, bookworm Homer Hickam's world changed forever. While his football star brother Jim scored his way through Coalwood's prettiest girls toward an assured football scholarship, Homer and a few of his friends were glued to a telescope with their eyes on that night sky between the mountain ridges, to watch tiny, 24 pound Sputnik as it beeped and winked its way through the heavens.
ROCKET BOYS is a saga that is part coming-of-age and part American can-do gumption. Homer (Sonny) Hickam was fortunate enough to eventually break the generations old barriers and fulfill his dream of working for NASA as a rocket scientist. But that would all come later. This heartwarming and inspiring story of a young man with mediocre math skills and a dream as big as the universe is one every reader in your family will enjoy. Hickam helps us relive the days of discovery and uncertainty with members of the opposite sex while deftly guiding us through the excitement and the gloom, the victories and the failures of this determined group of teenage boys. In this skillfully drafted narrative, the Rocket Boys progress from building rockets made from aluminum tubing scrounged from the mining company dump to glorious marvels that thunder miles in the sky to the cheers of local crowds.
Homer's Mom wins a patience award as the boys use the Hickam basement --- and often the kitchen --- as a combustible fuels laboratory. Curing and testing chemical compounds with the power to launch rockets into the heavens proves hazardous for the Hickam backyard fence, several sets of pots and pans and ultimately, the family's hot water heater. Chased from the neighborhood, then the town, and finally the mining company's property, the determined boys strive to win the support of the school, the local girls --- and most important to Homer --- his father, in pursuit of an escape from Coalwood and entry into college.
ROCKET BOYS, the movie, starring Laura Dern and directed by Joe Johnston, is in production at Universal Studios. No release date is available, but advance publicity suggests that we might see it by next spring. ROCKET BOYS is a November Literary Guild selection.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on February 16, 1999