Book Reviewed: Rocket Boys, by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Every spring, our county library puts on a program called One Book, One Michiana. For a whole month, local libraries, schools, and businesses hold events and promotions centered on one chosen book. Last year it was To Kill a Mockingbird. This year it was Homer Hickam's memoir, Rocket Boys (also known as October Sky). Originally, I wasn't very happy with this choice. I'm not interested in overly-earnest memoirs, and I couldn't care less about rockets. But when my book club decided to read the book so we could take part in the One Book discussions, I figured I better join them (being the nominal leader and all). Turns out, this book is about a lot more than rockets. And the earnestness didn't even bother me.
In the late 1950s, Hickam was a teenager in Coalwood, West Virginia, a coal-mining company town. His dad was a foreman, loved and hated in equal measure by the other miners in town. After the Russians sent Sputnik into orbit, Hickam became obsessed with space. He gathered a group of friends with the goal of finding a way to emulate Hickam's hero, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. They began to build rockets. At first, they blew up fences and failed more than they succeeded. But as they began to test different models and fuel types, they found success. Eventually, their experiments took them to the National Science Fair.
This story has a lot of other things going on, too. It's a coming of age story more than anything. There are the usual problems you might expect in a mining town - accidents, labor strikes, etc. There's Hickam's very strained relationship with his father, as well as the very tense situation between his parents. People around Hickam battle major illnesses and tragedies, and eventually, he realizes his town is dying around him. There's something here for everyone.
I liked this book much more than I thought I would. It probably won't make my Top Ten list at the end of the year, but I definitely enjoyed it while it lasted. Hickam gives you a real feel for the town and its inhabitants, and he makes you care about them. I love reading about small rural towns; this book could have just focused on that and I would have been happy. So you can imagine my surprise at discovering I actually liked reading about all the rocket stuff. It amazes me that people can be this clever, willing to work so hard to find the right fuel mixtures, the right mathematic equations. Reading this book, I couldn't help but marvel and envy the ingenuity of these kids. I sure don't have that kind of go-get-'em that they have.
So if you live in Michiana and want to participate in One Book, you can't go wrong with giving this one a shot.