A few years ago, I stumbled upon Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, Jr. while browsing a local bookstore. As someone who likes science and astrophysics, the title intrigued me and I was sold after reading the blurb on the back. Published in 1998, this book has been on the market for quite a while but it is still as relevant as ever.
Taking place in the 1960s, Rocket Boys is a memoir about growing up in a West Virginia coal-mining town during the beginning of the space age. In Coalwood, where life revolves around football and the mine, rocketry was not on anyone’s mind until the Russians launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957. Fascinated and a little frightened, Hickam, better known as Sonny, and his friends decide to build rockets of their own. Meanwhile, Sonny’s father, who is perpetually disappointed in his son’s lack of ambition and athletic talent, struggles to cope with the reality that mining is deadly and that someday the mines will run out of coal. Inspired by his mother’s hope for a life outside of mining, Sonny learns how to build a rocket and more importantly, how to make it fly. He tentatively hopes that someday, astrophysics can get him out of Coalwood and maybe even to Cape Canaveral.
This book engages the reader through the use of multiple simultaneous plot lines. Sonny is both working on his rockets and navigating life and relationships as a high schooler while observing his father’s conflict with the miner’s union and his parents’ tense marriage. Because Sonny is not learning to build rockets out of a textbook, the reader learns along with him and does not need any background in science, rocketry, or trigonometry to enjoy and fully understand the story. Pages and chapters are dense with the various arcs carefully and skillfully intertwined. Although the book has a lot of characters, they are all well-developed, helping the reader to remember who is who. Often, characters who the reader initially casts aside as irrelevant come back into the story to fill crucial roles in Sonny’s life. Rocket Boys also does a great job setting the scene and tone of Coalwood for an audience who has likely never been to West Virginia, not to mention a mining town. Even readers coming in with no background knowledge of Appalachia are easily able to pick up on the mood of Sonny’s home. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I am currently on my second read-through of it and enjoying it just as much as I did the first time. I think the characters are very clever, and the writing vivid. There are not many books that bring me as much into a character’s shoes and life as this one does. Hickam does an excellent job explaining the complexities and multifaceted nature of his experiences. What fascinates me most about this book is that it is a true story. Arguably, Rocket Boys is one of the best narrative non-fiction or memoir books that I have ever read.