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Rocket Boys: A Memoir (The Coalwood Series #1) Hardcover – September 15, 1998
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Inspired by Werner von Braun and his Cape Canaveral team, 14-year-old Homer Hickam decided in 1957 to build his own rockets. They were his ticket out of Coalwood, West Virginia, a mining town that everyone knew was dying--everyone except Sonny's father, the mine superintendent and a company man so dedicated that his family rarely saw him. Hickam's smart, iconoclastic mother wanted her son to become something more than a miner and, along with a female science teacher, encouraged the efforts of his grandiosely named Big Creek Missile Agency. He grew up to be a NASA engineer and his memoir of the bumpy ride toward a gold medal at the National Science Fair in 1960--an unprecedented honor for a miner's kid--is rich in humor as well as warm sentiment. Hickam vividly evokes a world of close communal ties in which a storekeeper who sold him saltpeter warned, "Listen, rocket boy. This stuff can blow you to kingdom come." Hickam is candid about the deep disagreements and tensions in his parents' marriage, even as he movingly depicts their quiet loyalty to each other. The portrait of his ultimately successful campaign to win his aloof father's respect is equally affecting. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Great memoirs must balance the universal and the particular. Too much of the former makes it overly familiar; too much of the latter makes readers ask what the story has to do with them. In his debut, Hickam, a retired NASA engineer, walks that line beautifully. On one level, it's the story of a teenage boy who learns about dedication, responsibility, thermodynamics and girls. On the other hand, it's about a dying way of life in a coal town where the days are determined by the rhythms of the mine and the company that controls everything and everybody. Hickam's father is Coalwood, W.Va.'s mine superintendent, whose devotion to the mine is matched only by his wife's loathing for it. When Sputnik inspires "Sonny" with an interest in rockets, she sees it not as a hobby but as a way to escape the mines. After an initial, destructive try involving 12 cherry bombs, Sonny and his cronies set up the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA). From Auk I (top altitude, six feet), through Auk XXXI (top altitude, 31,000 feet), the boys experiment with nozzles, fins and, most of all, fuel, graduating from a basic black powder to "rocket candy" (melted potassium chlorate and sugar) to "Zincoshine" (zinc, sulfur, moonshine). But Coalwood is the real star, here. Teachers, clergy, machinists, town gossips, union, management, everyone become co-conspirators in the BCMA's explosive three-year project. Hickam admits to taking poetic license in combining characters and with the sequence of events, and if there is any flaw, it's that the people and the narrative seem a little too perfect. But no matter how jaded readers have become by the onslaught of memoirs, none will want to miss the fantastic voyage of BCMA, Auk and Coalwood. First serial to Life. 10-city author tour. (Sept.) FYI: Rocket Boys is currently in production at Universal, which plans to release it later this year.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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His autobiography of his life as a coal miner's son in rural West Virginia in the 50s is told without pretense or shame. It's an uplifting story of how a dream, became an idea. And that idea led to a lifetime of discovery.
I felt like I was on his shoulder as he recounted the trials and tribulations of the Rocket Boys.
Great for all ages.
"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. "--Sonny Hickam
In 'Rocket Boys,' everyone seems to have their own different, sometimes evolving, relationship with the town of Coalwood. Some think of it as a protector that provides for them, while others see it as an enemy that they must escape from. Many just think of the town as safe and familiar. Some outsiders perhaps see Coalwood as small, lifeless, and uneducated; perhaps even non-existent.
Elsie Hickam obviously sees Coalwood as the enemy, and her son 'Sonny' Homer Hickam as its next potential victim. At first, Sonny looks at the town as an extended family member. As you read on, you begin to feel like this isn't a town being described, but an iron-willed elder on its last legs, fighting to breathe, as many other small-towns across the county, or even the world, could similarly be personified:
"Coalwood's going to die. " she announced. "deader than a hammer. "
'"You can't count on the mine being here when you graduate from high school. Sonny. You can't even count on this town being here. Look at the kids at Big Creek from Berwind. Bartley. Cucumber. . . . Their fathers are out of work. and those towns are just falling down around them. It's the economy and it's the easy coal playing out and it's . . . I don't know what all it is. but I've got sense enough to know it's just a matter of time before the same thing happens here in Coalwood too. You need to do everything you can to get out of here, starting right now."-- Elsie Hickam
One part that I found particularly keynote to the story was Sonny's reaction to his mother's prediction for the future of Coalwood:
"Then I remembered what Mom had said about Coalwood dying. That was the hardest thing to understand of all the things she had told me. All around me, Coalwood was always busily playing its industrial symphony of rumbling coal ears, spouting locomotives, the tromping of the miners going to and from the mine. How could that ever end?"
Coalwood was a town so isolated, that it made the neighboring towns look like foreign countries. So, when Sonny saw the Russian satellite Sputnik soaring over Coalwood, it was as if he saw himself being carried across that sky along with it.
What role would 'Coalwood' take in Sonny Hickam's life: A protector, an enemy, or perhaps...a source of inspiration?
Quite simply this book is an excellent read, written by and about a extraordinary man. Hickam set a goal for himself, and with the help of friends, teachers, parents, a caring adults he and all the BCMA accomplished their goal and attending college. There many heroes in this book and each contribute to an amazing story.
If you're looking for book to read, this is an excellent one that I would highly suggest.