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Rocket Boys (also known as October Sky) is the first memoir in a series of three, by Homer Hickam, Jr. It is a story of growing up in a mining town, and a boy's pursuit of amateur rocketry in a coal mining town. It won the W.D. Weatherford Award in 1998, the year of its release. Today, it is one of the most often picked community/library reads in the United States. It is also studied in many school systems around the world. Rocket Boys was followed by The Coalwood Way (2000) and Sky of Stone (2002).

Rocket Boys was made into a film in 1999, titled October Sky (an anagram of "Rocket Boys"). The book was then re-published as October Sky shortly afterwards.

Plot summary

Homer "Sonny" Hickam, Jr. lived in a small coal mining town in West Virginiamarker named Coalwoodmarker. Sonny, after seeing Sputnik, the world's first artificial Earth satellite, decides to join the American team of rocket engineers, the Army Ballistic he graduated from school. (Note: In the book Rocket Boys, the main character is always called Sonny. In the movie October Sky, he is called Homer.) Sonny's older brother, named Jim Hickam, was excellent at football and expected to go to college on a football scholarship. Sonny, however, was terrible at sports and had no special skill that will get him "out of Coalwood". Sonny's mother was afraid that he will have to work in the mines after high school. She planted in his mind the idea to build a rocket to impress his father enough to pay his way through college.

Sonny's first attempt at rocketry consisted of a flashlight tube and model airplane body as a casing, fueled by flash powder from old cherry bombs. It exploded violently, destroying his mother's fence. After that, Sonny enlisted the help of other boys in the town and his high school to help him build his rockets while forming the BCMA (Big Creek Missile Agency). These people were Homer "Sonny" Hickam, Quentin Wilson, Roy Lee Cooke, Sherman Siers, O'Dell Carroll, and Billy Rose. Their first real rocket, powered by black powder, was named Auk 1; the great auk is a flightless sea bird that became extinct in the mid-1800s. Auk 1 flew six feet high before the solder melted and the nozzle, a washer, separated from the casement. After that, the group of boys started calling themselves "Rocket Boys" and called the place they were launching their rockets from "Cape Coalwood", in honor of Cape Canaveralmarker.

The Rocket Boys enjoyed mixed success during their rocket launching campaign which lasted three years, from 1957 to 1960, employing several fuel mixtures including rocket candy and a mixture called "zincoshine" (composed of zinc dust and sulfur, with alcohol made by a local bootlegger as a binder for the mixture). They fired a total of 34 rockets (Auks I–XXXI, with four different Auk XXIIs), with a maximum height of over six miles.

They also won a National Science Fair gold medal for their rockets, their project titled "A Study of Amateur Rocketry Techniques".


  • Homer "Sonny" Hickam, Jr. is the main protagonist and narrator of the story. He is 14 years old at the beginning of the story. He is the unspoken leader of the Rocket Boys. He has an older football star brother named Jim and parents named Elsie and Homer Sr. He is often given a hard time around the town because he is pursuing a different dream, and because his father is the mine's foreman. He is sometimes a little sneaky although he nearly always gets caught.
  • Quentin Wilson is an intelligent member of the Rocket Boys and the person who does most of the math out of the entire group. He is excitable and often confounds the other members and townspeople with his advanced vocabulary when jumpy.
  • O'Dell Carroll is small and excitable, the most emotional member of the group. His father drove the town garbage truck, allowing O'Dell access to many useful items, frequently scrounged to further the group's efforts. He is always scheming ways of making money, from the failed iron scrap attempt—which took an entire summer, yielded a net loss of one dollar, not counting the destruction of borrowed equipment, and almost killed Sonny—to the profitable harvesting of ginseng.
  • Sherman Siers has polio in his left leg, but does not let it slow him down. He is also the most observant and practical member of the team.
  • Roy Lee Cooke is Sonny's best friend. He teaches Sonny something about girls. In the follow-up memoir titled The Coalwood Way, it is revealed that he is known as The Big Creek Lovemaster. Roy Lee also knows the moonshiner in town, John Eye, who provides the boys with the alcohol needed for their special propellant they call Zincoshine.
  • Willie "Billy" Rose is a member of the Rocket Boys who joins the group about a year after it is founded. He has excellent eyesight and can find rockets very well. He is the best runner in the group.
  • Miss Riley is a chemistry and physics teacher at Big Creek High School who inspires the Rocket Boys to compete in the National Science Fair. She gives Sonny a book called Principles of Guided Missile Design that is extremely useful to the Rocket Boys in the future. She also orchestrates the Rocket Boys' entry into the National Science Fair. She is diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma shortly before Sonny leaves for the science fair. Later, she dies of her disease.
  • Jake Mosby is a womanizing alcoholic who helps the BCMA in paying off debts. He also introduces them to a writer of a small newspaper, Basil Oglethorpe.
  • Basil Oglethorpe is the writer of a small newspaper called the McDowell County Banner. He is in charge of the BCMA's publicity.
  • Mr. Ferro is in charge of a group of company machinists who help the BCMA build their rockets.
  • Mr. Caton is a machinist in Mr. Ferro's team. He is the main builder of the BCMA's rockets.
  • Homer Hickam, Sr. is a hard-headed mine foreman in Coalwood and Sonny's father. He takes his job very seriously, going out of his way to help miners in distress. He is almost always at odds with the union leader, John Dubonnet, who dated Elsie when they were all in high school together. Homer Sr. seems to not care about Sonny's affairs as much as he does Jim's; Sonny points this out in the book much to Homer Sr.'s chagrin.
  • Elsie Hickam is Sonny's mother. She is supportive of Sonny's rocket building, but often finds herself at odds with her husband, Homer Sr., about the rocket building. She often tells Sonny "Don't blow yourself up."
  • Dorothy Plunk is Sonny's dream girl. While he spends most of his time infatuated with her, she only wants a friend relationship and goes out with other boys. For a large section of the book, he ignores her, because she started dating his brother Jim.
  • Valentine Carmina is an older girl who likes Sonny. Ultimately, she teaches him about having sex in the backseat of an old Dodge.
  • Jim Hickam is Sonny's older brother who plays for the school's football team. He dates Sonny's dream girl, Dorothy Plunk, but later dumps her so he can go to college.
  • Mr. Bykovski is a worker in the mine who helps Sonny with his first rockets. Homer Sr. makes him work in the mine as punishment for helping Sonny. Later, Homer Sr. offers him his job back in the machine shop, but Bykovski does not accept the offer because he made more money in the mine. He is later killed in a mine collapse.
  • Geneva Eggers is a middle-aged woman who was rescued as a baby by Homer Hickam Sr. when her house was on fire. The rest of her family were still in the house when it went up in flames but she was the only one whom Homer saw. Everyone else perished. It is implied that after the fire, she turned to prostitution in order to support herself. During the novel, she invites Sonny into her home when he almost freezes to death on a December night and gives him a new set of clothes. Sonny feels uncomfortable changing in front of her and, sensing the hesitation, she replies, "Oh, come on. You ain't gonna show me nothin' I ain't already seen too many times."

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