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Book News

A glint in the sky changed his life

'Rocket Boys'
by Homer H. Hickham Jr.

Delacorte Press , $23.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- America in the '50s. Ike in the White House, Ozzie and Harriet on the tube, and all's right with the world. That's the stereotype of the era. But in 1957, a dark cloud passed over the sunny landscape of the decade. It was cast by a small spheroid known as Sputnik. And it changed everything.

It certainly changed the life of a young teen-ager in the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. Homer Hickam Junior, called "Sonny," was the son of a mine supervisor. At the age of 14, he looked up into the night sky and watched the Soviet satellite flash overhead. It was a watershed moment for Sonny, and for his family, friends and neighbors. Most of them didn't realize it.

From that night forward, Sonny became obsessed with the notion of building and launching rockets. He gathered together a group of friends and formed the Big Creek Missile Agency, inspired by Werhner von Braun and named for their high school.

None of the boys had the slightest idea how to go about building -- much less launching -- a rocket. Indeed, their first attempt cost Sonny's mother her garden fence. But they weren't deterred by such a minor setback.

It wasn't long before the folks of Coalwood had dubbed Sonny and his friends "The Rocket Boys." It was not necessarily a term of endearment.

Hickam's memoir "Rocket Boys" is the story of their travails and triumphs. It is also a coming-of-age tale that captures the essence of a unique moment in the life of a young man and his community. It looks back fondly, sometimes sentimentally, but also honestly on a time and a place that are quickly receding from our national memory.

Roots run deep for people from small towns. More than 30 years later, Hickam recalls the details that made life in Coalwood unique.

"Winter came to West Virginia late that year. It was a splendid fall; the leaves kept their bright burnt color well into November, and the sky turned a pale but pretty blue, like a robin's egg. Just before Thanksgiving, the first of the cold fronts from Canada finally reached us, and the trees abruptly dropped their leaves and turned black and skeletal. Winter storm clouds scudded in, got snagged on our hills, and stayed. Everything just seemed to turn black, brown and gray after that."

Through a combination of intelligence, persistence and just plain bull-headedness, Hickam and his buddies divined the secrets of rocketry. Their preliminary results were sometimes comic, sometimes frightening, often frustrating and always exciting. A lot like being a teen-ager, actually.

MOVIE REVIEW: How well was "Rocket Boys" made into a movie?

"Rocket Boys" is as much about growing up as it is about reaching for the stars. Hickam -- who won a gold medal at the 1960 National Science Fair and grew up to be a NASA engineer -- evokes the emotional turbulence of the teen years with warmth and wit. There are the halting steps toward social interaction with the opposite sex. There's the girl who stole his heart, then broke it. And then there's "the first time."

It's all part of the story of some remarkable boys who had a dream and wouldn't stop until they had seen it come true. In the process, they learned important lessons about themselves and their hometown. "Rocket Boys" is a thoroughly charming book that tells an irresistible story. The journey of Hickam and his pals from the Appalachian backwoods to the threshold of space was motivated by the same factors -- pride, determination and grit -- that carried Americans to the moon.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

Some other reviews by L.D. Meagher:

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