Rocket Boys

I picked this book up during a 4+-hour layover in the Pittsburgh Airport.  I had always meant to get around to seeing October Sky (and probably will, now that it's on Starz!), so reading this book seemed a good substitute.  I'm glad I read it; I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Homer H. ("Sonny") Hickham, Jr. is the son of the mine superintendent in Coalwood, West ("by God") Virginia.  His father wants him to follow in his footsteps by working in the mine.  His mother desperately wants her two sons to get away from the mine, away from the black lung disease, and away from Coalwood.  Sonny's older brother, Jim, has a football scholarship in his future, but Sonny doesn't have much of anything in his.  That is, until one day Sonny sees a news report about Sputnik and starts dreaming of building rockets.  He recruits his friends to join the "Big Creek Missile Agency," and with the grudging support of the town, start shooting for the stars.

Let me get my one complaint out of the way.  Rocket Boys is ostensibly a work of non-fiction, but the author's note refers to an "author's license" and "certain liberties in the telling of the story."  He claims, "my intention in allowing this narrative to stray from strict nonfiction was always to illuminate more brightly the truth."  I think this note under-states the extent to which the story has clearly been fictionalized.  The too-good-to-be-true coincidences of timing evenutally made me realize that the details of this story are not to be taken literally.  That said, the only case where thing really go too far is an exchange with then-candidate John F. Kennedy in which the author seems to be taking credit for JFK's pledge to put a man on the moon.

Otherwise, however, this is a wonderful book.  I feel like the world I grew up in is far, far away from the coal towns of West Virginia, but Rocket Boys really drew me in and helped me understand that life.  On the flip side, I felt a great deal of empathy for the thirst for knowledge expressed by the rocket boys.  Of course, as a teenager I generally pursued my interests by reading rather than fooling around with explosive propellants.  But that's OK; the world needs mathematicians no less than it needs engineers.  I was also impressed how Sputnik fever and other events transformed the boys from irresponsible hooligans to town heroes.  Similarly, 1990's computer geeks have become 2000's computer geeks...with a lot of money.

The boys' quest to build rockets that fly higher and higher (or at first, just fly) is fascinating, but perhaps more interesting is Sonny's quest to understand his mother and father.  Those two characters come across more strongly than any others in this book (or most others).  His father is intensely devoted to the mine and wishes his son would follow in his footsteps.  Sonny at first sees in his father only disapproval, but gradually begins to find the affection that lurks below the surface.  Sonny's mother, Elsie, is a kind and generous woman who wants only to get herself and her family away from the mines of West Virginia.  She grows increasingly frustrated with her husband's devotion to the mine, but her love for him (also below the surface) keeps her going.

All in all, I highly recommend this book.  4 1/2 stars.