October Sky

by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Dell; February, 1999; ISBN 0-440-23550-2; 428 pp.;
reviewed by John W. Herbert

There’s only one way to say it: October Sky, a true story, is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.
In 1957, growing up in the slowly dying mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia wasn’t easy for many young boys, including Homer Hickam. His brother was a high school football star, his father was the mine’s superintendent, and he was an introspective bookworm. And in a town that swallowed its men alive, Homer had no future to look forward to, save the mines. But one night, for the very first time something man-made streaked across the October sky and Homer found a dream that could take him away from Coalwood and the mines. Together with other misfits, he started turning scraps of metal into rockets with the dream of someday working with Wernher von Braun. But this is more than a story of teenage nerds with a dream, it’s the story of an estranged son and father trying to find some middle ground; it’s the story, the all-too-tragic story, of the decay and death of a company town where workers and families are used and spit out and abandoned when the coal finally gives out; and it’s the story of pursuing your passion, and the luck of having the right person in the right place who can give you the push you need. Wonderfully written, evocative, eloquent and heart-warming, Hickam’s story is touching and moving. Read this book!
Or see the movie! Joe Johnston’s adaptation of the novel is just as stirring and moving. If the film has any flaws, they concern nothing more than minor editing issues as some small plot threads are left dangling without much explanation. (And the marketing genius who changed the movie’s title from the book’s original title of Rocket Boys should be taken out and beaten. Oh, never mind -- he’d probably like that.) Watch the book. Read the movie. Or vice versa. Either way, it’s a real treat.

2005 Update: The DVD has just been re-issued, with a wonderful commentary track by Homer Hickam, and a new documentary on the Rocket Boys. Worth an evening of your time!

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