Synopses & Reviews
"Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my home town was at war with itself over its children, and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine."
So begins Homer "Sonny" Hickam Jr.'s extraordinary memoir of life in Coalwood, West Virginia-a hard-scrabble little company town where the only things that mattered were coal mining and high school football. But in 1957, after the Soviet satellite Sputnik shot across the Appalachian sky, Sonny and his teenaged friends decided to do their bit for the U.S. space race by building their own rockets—and Coalwood, Sonny and A powerful story of growing up and of getting out, of a mother's love and a father's fears, Homer Hickam's memoir Rocket Boys proves, like Angela's Ashes and Russell Baker's Growing Up before it, that the right storyteller and the right story can touch readers' hearts and enchant their souls.
In a town where the only things that mattered were coal-mining and high-school football, where the future was regarded with more fear than hope, a young man watched the Soviet satellite Sputnik race across the West Virginia sky—and soon found his future in the stars. In 1957, Homer H. "Sonny" Hickam, Jr., and a handful of his friends were inspired to start designing and launching the home-made rockets that would change their lives and their town forever.
Looking back after a distinguished NASA career, Hickam shares the story of his youth, taking readers into the life of the little mining town of Coalwood and the boys who would come to embody its dreams. Step by step, with the help (and occasional hindrance) of a collection of unforgettable characters, the boys learn not only how to turn scrap into sophisticated rockets that fly miles into the sky, but how to sustain their dreams as they dared to imagine a life beyond its borders in a town that the postwar boom was passing by.
Rocket Boys has already caught the eye of Hollywood: The producer of Field of Dreams is now working to produce a major motion picture in time for next year's Academy Awards.
A uniquely endearing story with universal themes of class, family, coming of age, and the thrill of discovery, Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys is evocative, vivid storytelling at its most magical.
andquot;Here isand#160;the amazing story of an unbelievable boyand#160;
andmdash; somebody who seems more like a figure out of fiction (science fiction, to be specific) than reality. But the story is true, the boy is true, and the science is true. And the world that opens up to us through his story is bothand#160;fascinating and slightly terrifying...but in a good way
. You wonand#39;t be able to walk away from this tale.andquot; --Elizabeth Gilbert, author ofand#160;Eat, Pray, Love
and#160;andand#160;The Signature of All Things
andquot;Imagine if cartoon whiz-kid Jimmy Neutron were real and had a brainchild with MacGyver and his adolescence got told asand#160;a rollicking bildungsroman about American prodigies and DIY nuclear reactorsandmdash;well, thatandrsquo;s this book.andquot; and#160;--Jack Hitt, author ofand#160;Bunch of Amateurs.and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160; and#160;and#160;
andquot;Clynes guides us onand#160;an engrossing journey to the outer realms of science and parenting, andquot;The Boy Who Played with Fusionandquot; isand#160;a fascinating exploration of andquot;giftednessandquot; and all its consequences. --Paul Greenberg, author ofand#160;Four Fishand#160;andand#160;American Catch
Popular Science contributing editor Clynes (Music Festivals From Bach to Blues: A Travellers Guide, 1996, etc.) uses the story of Taylor Wilsonandmdash;who, at age 14, became andquot;one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor, a miniature sun on Earthandquot;andmdash;to illustrate the potential for improving our educational system. andquot;What does it take to identify and develop the raw material of talent and turn it into exceptional accomplishment? How do we parent and educate extraordinarily determined and intelligent children and help them reach their potential?andquot; These are the questions the author seeks to answer in this enlightening book. Clynes first learned about Taylor in 2010 when he was interviewing members of a small community of andquot;nuclear physics enthusiasts.andquot; At the time, Taylor was attending the Davidson Academy, an experimental secondary school in Reno that offered students the opportunity to attend classes at the University of Nevada-Reno. Taylor enrolled in physics seminars and had successfully completed a project to build a tabletop fusion reactor that allowed him to study the properties of different materials. The family had moved to Reno so that Taylor could take advantage of the Davidson opportunity. His father was a successful entrepreneur who had fostered Taylorand#39;s developing interest in science, beginning at age 6, with his fascination with rocket propulsion. Although he had no technical training himself, Wilson enlisted the help of more knowledgeable friends from the community to help his son safely pursue experiments with rockets. Clynes chronicles Taylorand#39;s development since their first meeting, during which time he invented a prototype for a andquot;hundred-thousand-dollar tabletop nuclear fusion device that could produce medical isotopes as precisely as the multimillion-dollar cyclotron or linear accelerator facilities could,andquot; as well as a highly sensitive, low-dose device for identifying nuclear terrorists. Clynes makes a persuasive case for allowing gifted children the freedom and resources to pursue their interests. and#160;---KIRKUS Reviews
In 1957, when fourteen-year-old Homer Hickam, Jr. (aka Sonny) watches Sputnik fly over his hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia, his life is changed forever. Knowing he wants to be part of the space race, Sonny and his friends, set out to learn as much as they can about launching rockets. Soon, these Rocket Boys wind up enlisting the help of everyone in the town -- and blowing up some of Sonny's mother's best kitchenware in the process.
Set against a backdrop of miners' strikers, the beginning of the Cold War, and America's loss of innocence, "Rocket Boys" reads like a novel. It is an unforgettable story that will surely launch the dreams of a new generation.
Looking back after a distinguished NASA career, Hickam shares the story of his youth in a coal mining town.
An account of child genius Taylor Wilsonand#8217;s successful quest to build his own nuclear reactor at the age of fourteen, and an exploration of how gifted children can be nurtured to do extraordinary things.
How an American teenager became the youngest person ever to build a working nuclear fusion reactorand#160;
By the age of nine, Taylor Wilson had mastered the science of rocket propulsion. At eleven, his grandmotherandrsquo;s cancer diagnosis drove him to investigate new ways to produce medical isotopes. And by fourteen, Wilson had built a 500-million-degree reactor and become the youngest person in history to achieve nuclear fusion. How could someone so young achieve so much, and what can Wilsonandrsquo;s story teach parents and teachers about how to support high-achieving kids?
In The Boy Who Played with Fusion, science journalist Tom Clynes narrates Taylor Wilsonandrsquo;s extraordinary journeyandmdash;from his Arkansas home where his parents fully supported his intellectual passions, to a unique Reno, Nevada, public high school just for academic superstars, to the present, when now nineteen-year-old Wilson is winning international science competitions with devices designed to prevent terrorists from shipping radioactive material into the country. Along the way, Clynes reveals how our education system shortchanges gifted students, and what we can do to fix it.
About the Author
TOM CLYNES is a writer and photographer who covers the adventurous side of science, the environment, and education.andnbsp;He hasandnbsp;reported on Ebola outbreaks and eco-mercenaries in central Africa, climatologists working in Greenland, and arsenic-loving microbes in Californiaandrsquo;s Mono Lake.andnbsp;He was aandnbsp;contributing editor at National Geographic Adventure for over a decade, and now regularly writes for National Geographic, Menandrsquo;s Journal, and Popular Science, where he is a contributing editor. He has also contributed to GQ, Conservation Magazine, the Guardian, the Times of London, Bicycling, Backpacker, and the Washington Post. His magazine stories have appeared multiple times in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Travel Writing. He is alsoandnbsp;a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellow, an International Reporting Project Fellow, and a two-time recipient of the Lowell Thomas Award. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Brookline, Vermont.
Reading Group Guide
This Reader’s Group Guide for Homer Hickam’s October Sky/Rocket Boys
is designed to stimulate discussion and enhance the reader's appreciation of this exceptional book.
1. As you read this memoir, did you begin to feel as if you knew the people involved? Did you like them? Do you think you’d have been happy to live in Coalwood in the late 1950’s? If you had, what position in it would you have wanted? Coal miner? Foreman? Teacher? Housewife? Preacher? Doctor? Rocket Boy or Girl? Football Star?
2. Was this memoir similar in its construction with others that you’ve read? What do you think of the memoir genre? Do you think it might be difficult to write a memoir that is interesting to readers?
3. How would you describe this book? Would you call is a man’s book or a woman’s book? Were you fearful it might be too technical? Is it just a story of a boy with a dream or the story of a small mining town? Or is it something grander and deeper?
4. Do you think Homer Senior and Elsie love each other? What is the principle cause of their conflicts? What is the importance of the mural Elsie is painting in the kitchen? Why is Homer Junior called “Sonny” in the book? Why did his teachers insist on calling him by that nickname rather than the one his mother wanted?
5. How would you describe Sonny’s father? Why does Homer Senior take Sonny into the mine, risking Elsie’s wrath? Why does he arrange for rocket materials when he seems so antagonistic to the rocket building? How does the conflict between his mom and dad motivate Sonny? Why was Geneva Eggers so important in Sonny’s understanding of his father?
6. In the first paragraph of the book, Homer writes that his hometown was “at war with itself over its children.” What does this mean?
7. Nearly all the women in Coalwood are shown to be strong women, a trait they must have to say goodbye daily to their husbands and sons who work in the dangerous mine and may not return that night. Although most of the women of Coalwood make the best of their lot, they want a better life for their children. How can they help this to happen? Are they feminists before the term existed? How about the teachers called “The Great Six?” What’s their role in Coalwood? What is your opinion of Elsie, Sonny’s mother? Is she too harsh with her husband in her attempt to better her life and that of her sons? And Miss Riley? What did it say about her when she stood up for the Rocket Boys against the feared principal, Mr. Turner?
8. Does the book tell a universal story? Could it be set in other times or is it specific to Coalwood and West Virginia in the late ‘50s? The book has been translated into eight languages and people from all over the world say Homer “told their story,” yet they have never held a rocket or even seen a coal mine! The book is dedicated “To Mom and Dad and the people of Coalwood.” Why do you think Homer made that dedication?
9. Many schools from fifth grade to college are studying Rocket Boys/October Sky in their classrooms, including English, math, and science classes. That makes it a pretty unique book! This is an adult book, but it is told from a young man’s point of view. Why do you think teachers are picking this book to study and why are they writing Homer that they think it was their most popular class read ever, sparking the most thoughtful discussion? (See the Web site’s Teacher’s button and the letters from them for many examples.)
10. This story is also about the rewards and costs of nonconformity. Who conforms, who doesn’t and what are the consequences of their actions? Is that a problem today and can this story help those who tend to go against the expected norms? How was Quentin a nonconformist? How about the other boys?
11. In Chapter 22, Mr. Turner, the Big Creek High School principal, wryly tells Sonny, “In the queer mass of human destiny, the determining factor has always been luck.” But in Chapter 26, Homer writes, “There’s a plan. If you are willing to fight hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but you’re still going to end up where God wants you to be.” Are these quotations about human fate really in conflict with each other? How do they apply to the story?
12. Rocket Boys/October Sky is an excellent way to think about and discuss the many steps it takes to achieve a goal. Sonny’s idea of building rockets starts as simply a dream, but then he brings in the other boys and even approaches Quentin, the school outcast. The Rocket Boys first look upon their rocket-building as interesting and fun but then it becomes a challenge to defy expectations. Only much later does the idea of entering the science fairs occur to them. Discuss the importance of incremental steps in your life. Do you believe an incremental approach has validity in all walks of life, academic and otherwise? Why does Quentin believe in the necessity of obtaining what he calls a “body of knowledge?”
13. Miss Riley, the physics teacher, seems to regard education as a challenge and adventure. Sonny rises to meet the formidable task she sets before him. He writes, “I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it”(p. 168). That challenge is taken to the next level by Miss Riley when she gives him the book Principles of Guided Missile Design, saying, “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it”(p. 232). Discuss Miss Riley’s motivational techniques.
14. When Sonny thinks of giving up rocketry altogether, Miss Riley tells him: “You’ve got to put all your hurt and anger aside so that you can do your job ... Your job, Sonny, is to build your rockets.” When Sonny asks why that’s so important, she answers, “If for no other reason, because it honors you and this school”(p. 296). It’s clear that she means it also honors Coalwood. Discuss the concept of civic pride. How do the Rocket Boys help the town? Why are they celebrated in the newspapers? In church? In the Big Store? By both sides of the unionization conflict? Why do so many attend their rocket launches? Is it just because the football team is on year-long suspension?
15. Discuss the motivational aspects contained within this story. How did Sputnik motivate Sonny? Is his mother trying to be motivational after he blows up her rose garden fence with his first rocket? (“I believe you can build a rocket. [Your father] doesn’t. I want you to show him I’m right”(p. 52).) Early in his career as a rocket builder, Rocket Boy O’Dell says, “A rocket won’t fly unless someone lights the fuse”(p. 105). How important is it to find motivation in all our endeavors? Would the boys have gotten to the science fair without being motivated by something larger than themselves?
16. The final chapter in the book (before the epilogue) finishes with the launch of the last rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency. Homer Senior is invited to launch this rocket. Why do you think this invitation was made? Why do you think he accepted?
This Readers Group Guide for Homer Hickams October Sky/Rocket Boys is designed to stimulate discussion and enhance the reader's appreciation of this exceptional book.