Book Review: Rocket Boys


When I purchased the book “Rocket Boys” a few months ago at a meeting where author Homer Hickam was signing books, I had no real intentions of reading it. I bought it more for posterity; to add to my collection. I even had the inscription dedicated to Finn, thinking some day it could be his book, a little piece of history relevant to the space program with ties to our hometown, etc.

But a few weeks after that, the movie based on the book, “October Sky,” was on television and there was this certain part that showed the young Homer Hickam briefly meet a German-accented man, which I rightly assumed was Wernher von Braun. But wait? Hickam said during his talk that he never met von Braun. Did the movie-makers change that part of the biography to tell a better story? It turns out they did. I checked that portion of the book against the movie, and sure enough, in the book Hickam says he never met von Braun. In the movie he did.

I’ve always liked to compare differences between books and their movie equivalents so this was a perfect case to do that with, since there was already one pretty major falsification. I just finished the book yesterday so I’ve not yet watched the movie again to do a full comparison, but I plan to get the DVD on Netflix and do that soon. In the meantime, I have just  few responses to the book and a quote to share.

I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t follow the rocket science. The descriptions of the development and progression of the rockets’ designs or fuels assumed you knew the names of the parts of a rocket (which I don’t) and that you knew the properties of certain chemicals well enough to know what would happen when they mixed. I tried to visualize what the boys were doing and couldn’t. (My husband says the movie will help with that a lot since it’s already visualized for me).

I also didn’t expect so much “other” content, about relationships and minor characters and “the times.” At first I was bothered by how far off track I thought the main story was going. But I realized about 2/3 of the way through that the main story was not what I thought it was. The rocket story was just the “news hook” for a story about Homer Hickam’s life growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia. As someone put it, a “coming of age story.”

I marked several quotable passages, but the one below has a pretty universal application and is an idea I’ve subscribed to for years.

“Jake had it right. There’s a plan. If you’re willing to fight it hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but you’re still going to end up wherever God wants you to be.”

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One thought on “Book Review: Rocket Boys

  1. Xandria says:

    Quite right. The stories told in Rocket Boys and the movie October Sky are much different. Rocket Boys is a classic (see http://www.homerhickam.com for what I mean in that it’s way ahead of To Kill a Mockingbird in overall popularity). Hickam wrote it as a means of telling of life in Coalwood and the people there. It is NOT a rocket-building story. As Hickam says, he used rockets as a metaphor and that what people are interested in are other people. He also said in an interview that he deliberately left out details of the rocket building so that kids wouldn’t try to duplicate his feats. As a visual art form, the movie-makers focused on the rockets and the mythical scholarships. I found the follow-up memoirs The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone compulsive page-turners.

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