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Rocket Boys: A Memoir (1998)
I kept hearing really good things about the movie October Sky, so, though I didn't know much about the story, I rented it eagerly. It is indeed an old-fashioned crowd pleaser, an almost Capraesque throwback to the great American films of the 40's. It tells the story of four boys from a West Virginia coal town, a company town right out of Tennessee Ernie Ford's great song Sixteen Tons. In a football crazed high school, none of the boys is a very good athlete. Quentin, in fact, is a bookish nerd shunned by the rest of his classmates. Homer, their ringleader, decides, in the wake of the Sputnik launch, that they will build a rocket of their own. After some initial misfires, including demolishing his mother's prized picket fence, and despite the initial resistance of Homer Sr., who manages and truly loves the mine, the boys eventually enlist the aid of the whole community in their project and enjoy increasing success even as the town dies around them. They even determine to try and win the National Science Fair and the attending scholarships which will offer them an opportunity to get out of town. But their plans are smashed when local authorities accuse them of starting a forest fire with one of their rockets and when Homer's Dad is injured in a mine collapse, he drops out of school and goes to work in the mine. But that of course is not the end of it, while working in the mines, Homer teaches himself the mathematics required to prove that the fire could not have been set by one of their launches. Vindicated, he returns to school and goes on to win the big prize. Along the way, he even finds time to reconcile with his Dad. The movie is exactly as hokey and sappy as it sounds and I loved every second of it.
But as you're watching, it is awfully hard to suspend your disbelief enough to accept that this is a "true" story. There are simply too many coincidences and ironic twists, folks are just that little bit too noble, events break a little too conveniently, until the unreality of the flow of events starts to impinge on enjoyment of the tale. Don't get me wrong; I still liked it, but that "true story" label was really distracting.
At any rate, my curiosity piqued, I grabbed the book and found this epigraph:
I have...taken certain liberties in the telling of
the story, particularly having to do with the precise
Now, there was a time when virtually every author's first novel was understood to be a thinly veiled autobiographical tale. Unfortunately, our voyeuristic society seems to place a premium on "reality" and so these novels have been replaced by obligatory memoirs. These books are immediately suspect because they so often recreate huge swathes of dialogue verbatim, often conversations which occurred in childhood, which no one could possibly remember in such detail. And, of course, real life is seldom quite as interesting as fiction and events never happen as conveniently for the plot, so each succeeding memoir relates events that seem increasingly less likely. I mean, does anybody really think that Frank McCourt (see Orrin's review of Angela's Ashes) got his grubstake by rolling an expired money lender? So at this point, when these supposedly true stories have become so obviously fictionalized, why continue this charade?
Hickman's book is at least honest enough to tip the reader off that "liberties" have been taken. The story that follows is great fun--a cross between How Green Was My Valley (1939)(Richard Llewellyn 1906-1983) (Grade: A+) and The Right Stuff (1979)(Tom Wolfe 1931-) (Grade: A+)--and is not quite as unbelievable as the movie. One wishes that some editor somewhere would have the great good sense and the simple honesty to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that books like this are in fact novels. Drop the "Memoir" in the title and make an honest man of the author. Then we can just concentrate on the tale he has to tell, which is terrific.
-Homer Hickam's Official website
-official site for the Original Rocket Boys, the O.R.B. for short
-ESSAY: The Big Creek Missle Agency: The short story in AIR&SPACE that became the movie October Sky. (Homer H. Hickam Jr., Air & Space)
-ESSAY: How I Came to Write the Memoir: Rocket Boys (Homer H. Hickam, Jr.)
-ESSAY: Time to be Great Again (Homer Hickam, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY: The Contrabandistas: They were a ragged gang of pilots smuggling goods into Mexico in a risky night-flight operation. They call themselves... (Homer H. Hickam Jr., Air & Space)
-SPEECH: The Rocket Boys: Passion, Planning, and Perseverance- West Virginia University Commencement Speech, Morgantown, WV.
-PROFILE: "Star Struck" October Sky hero, Homer Hickam, left home on his way to the heavens. (Kyle Smith, Grace Lim (in Huntsville), People)
-INTERVIEW: BookPage Interview September 1998: Homer H. Hickam, Jr. (Christopher Lawrence, Book Page)
-INTERVIEW: Homer H. Hickam Jr. Interview (Norman Julian, The Morgantown Dominion Post)
-ESSAY: Rocket Boys (Mark Toor, Wonderful West Vireginia)
-The National Association Of Rocketry
-REVIEW: ROCKET BOYS A Memoir. By Homer H. Hickam Jr. (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW: ROCKET BOYS A Memoir. By Homer H. Hickam Jr. (James R. Gaines, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Coal miner's son had other plans (Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY)
-REVIEW: (Norman Julian, The Morgantown Dominion Post)
-REVIEW: (Terry Lawson, Knight Ridder News Service)
-REVIEW: of BACK TO THE MOON By Homer H. Hickam Jr. (Anita Gates, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of ROCKET BOYS: A Memoir. By Homer H. Hickam Jr Rocketing to the top of the world (THOMAS FENSCH, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of Sky of Stone: A Memoir by Homer Hickman (Steve Galpern, Rocky Mountain News)
i love your book i live in coal wood
- red neck
- May-30-2008, 15:27
after reading your review of rocket boys i have decided to go out find the book,some movies on mister hickmam.and you know what?i don't give a darn,cause i was a rocket boy once myself.i wonder where that little town of coalwood,w.va.is.i'll bet sputnit passed right over it.yeah,back then hope was above the earth but with your feet planted firmly on the ground.a new horizon,a new beggining,a new frontier? over our heads. HOPE.i know homer.
- Aug-12-2003, 10:43