Books : reviews

Homer H. Hickam.
Rocket Boys: a true story.
Fourth Estate. 1998

When Sputnik, the world's first space satellite, flies over the small mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia in 1957, 14-year-old Sonny Hickam makes a decision: to build a rocket to rival the Russians. With the help of high school friends Roy Lee, O'Dell, Sherman, Billy and Quentin (the brains of the outfit), plus an almost limitless lack of knowledge, Sonny forms the Big Creek Missile Agency.

Meanwhile, as rumours threaten that the mine may close, tension seeps into the close-knit community. So when Sonny accidentally launches his mother's rose-garden fence into the night sky in a ball of fire, the whole town is happy to be distracted. It's not long however before the townsfolk are running for their lives as projectiles rain down and fear and frustration boil over. When the town begins to wither around them, it is the boys' determination that drags, cajoles, inspires and ultimately unites Coalwood in the quest to build bigger, better rockets. Mine engineers furtively study aerodynamics; the boys scour the woods for scrap metal; high school teachers hint at dangerously explosive fuel combinations - until the whole county finds itself sharing in the boys' dream as the Big Creek Missile Agency prepares to take their home-made rockets to compete at the National Science Fair, meeting on the way a young senator named Jack Kennedy who is already talking enthusiastically about the space race.

Rocket Boys is the delightfully true story of the dusty, sweaty, chancy fumblings of Sonny Hickam and his friends as they battle adolescence, love, loss and fear in pursuit of their dreams of the final frontier.