As you read this memoir, did you begin to feel as
if you knew the people involved? Did you like them?
Do you think you'd have been happy to live in Coalwood
in the late 1950's? If you had, what position in it
would you have wanted? Coal miner? Foreman? Teacher?
Housewife? Preacher? Doctor? Rocket Boy or Girl? Football
Star? -- Commentary: Coalwood had a distinct
role for each person who lived there. In order to
live in the town, it was required that the head of
the household work for the mine in some capacity.
The exceptions to this were the teachers at the Coalwood
School. Even the preachers were company men!
Many schools from fifth grade to college are studying
Rocket Boys/October Sky in their classrooms,
including English, math, and science classes. That
makes it a pretty unique book! This is an adult book
but it is told from a young man's point of view. Why
do you think teachers are picking this book to study
and why are they writing Homer that they think it
was their most popular class read ever, sparking the
most thoughtful discussion? -- Commentary:
Homer is always pleased when teachers and students
write and tell him how much they enjoyed studying
his book(s). But he is always astonished and a bit
chagrined when an English class writes and says how
much they loved "the movie!"
This story is also about the rewards and costs of
nonconformity. Who conforms, who doesn't and what
is the consequence of their actions? Is that a problem
today and can this story help those who tend to go
against the expected norms? How was Quentin a nonconformist?
How about the other boys? -- Commentary: Homer
believes the Rocket Boys are still "dangerous"
when they get together. There's something about their
mix of personalities that is a bit volatile! They
do miss Sherman, though. He was a soothing influence
to their passionate personalities!
In Chapter 22, Mr. Turner, the Big Creek High School
principal, wryly tells Sonny, "In the queer mass
of human destiny, the determining factor has always
been luck." But in Chapter 26, Homer writes,
"There's a plan. If you are willing to fight
hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but
you're still going to end up where God wants you to
be." Are these quotations about human fate really
in conflict with each other? How do they apply to
the story? -- Commentary: This is one of those
underlying themes to the book, that destiny is one
of life's grandest mysteries.
Rocket Boys/October Sky is an excellent
way to think about and discuss the many steps it takes
to achieve a goal. Sonny's idea of building rockets
starts as simply a dream, but then he brings in the
other boys and even approaches Quentin, the school
outcast. The Rocket Boys first look upon their rocket-building
as interesting and fun but then it becomes a challenge
to defy expectations. Only much later does the idea
of entering the science fairs occur to them. Discuss
the importance of incremental steps in your life.
Do you believe an incremental approach has validity
in all walks of life, academic and otherwise? Why
does Quentin believe in the necessity of obtaining
what he calls a "body of knowledge?" --
Commentary: Homer now gives motivational speeches
citing "Passion, Planning, and Perseverance"
as the secret to a successful life. He stresses that
planning in a sequential, incremental way is very
important in reaching your dreams.
Miss Riley, the physics teacher, seems to regard education
as a challenge and adventure. Sonny rises to meet
the formidable task she sets before him. He writes,
"I had discovered that learning something, no
matter how complex, wasn't hard when I had a reason
to want to know it." (p. 168) That challenge
is taken to the next level by Miss Riley when she
gives him the book Principles of Guided Missile Design,
saying, "All I've done is give you a book. You
have to have the courage to learn what's inside it."
(p. 232). Discuss Miss Riley's motivational techniques.
Discuss the motivational aspects contained within
this story. How did Sputnik motivate Sonny? Is his
mother trying to be motivational after he blows up
her rose garden fence with his first rocket ("I
believe you can build a rocket. [Your father] doesn't.
I want you to show him I'm right." (p. 52)) Early
in his career as a rocket builder, Rocket Boy O'Dell
says, "A rocket won't fly unless someone lights
the fuse." (p. 105) How important is it to find
motivation in all our endeavors? Would the boys have
gotten to the science fair without being motivated
by something larger than themselves? -- Commentary:
The movie presented the boys' motivation for building
their rockets as gaining scholarships for college.
In fact, there were never any scholarships offered
at any of the Science Fairs they entered nor did they
receive any. Still, despite the differences between
the book and the movie, we recommend you see the film.
It is wonderfully and artfully made and is very motivational.
It might also be an interesting discussion to figure
out why Hollywood felt the need to change the story.
The final chapter in the book (before the epilog)
finishes with the launch of the last rocket of the
Big Creek Missile Agency. Homer Senior is invited
to launch this rocket. Why do you think this invitation
was made? Why do you think he accepted? -- Commentary:
Homer held back writing this scene until the very
last although he wanted to write it more than any
other. It was, he says, a gift to himself to finally
write it down and savor that moment.
"OCTOBER SKY rewards every mother and teacher
who ever told children they could be anything they
wanted if they worked hard enough." --
"(Hickman's) memoir honoring both earthbound miners and their sons who gazed into space is required reading for understanding the American Dream." -- Bruce Watson, Smithsonian, March 1999.
"... Absorbing, unsentimental recollection of
a 1950s adolescence ..." -- Booklist,
January 1, 1999.
"... No matter how jaded readers have become by the onslaught of memoirs, none will want to miss the fantastic voyage of BCMA (Big Creek Missle Agency), Auk (rocket) and Coalwood." -- Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1998.
" ... An absorbing, rapidly readable (story) that is unsentimental but artful about adolescence, high school and family life." -- Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, August 1998.
NOTE: In addition to the full text review below, Movie Review Query Engine http://www.mrqe.com/lookup? provides a wide selection of reviews of the movie, October Sky, as well as reviews of over 42,000 other films.
Review of October Sky by writer Christopher B. Jones (April 7, 2001)
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union made history by putting the first man-made satellite into orbit. The 184-pound object caught the attention of Americans as every 96-minute circumnavigation of the earth reminded them that the Soviets had reached space first.
reminder took various forms. For some it was a frightening
glimpse of the communist shadow that loomed from the
East. For others it was a source of amazement and
inspiration. It was a long journey, but our species
had climbed down from the trees, reached for the stars,
and touched them.
These were the days of Sputnik.
While Moscow and Washington mulled over the implications of Sputnik 1, Homer Hickman, a high school student in the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia, turned his heart toward rocketry. As a young man in a 1950s coal town, Homer had only one possible future: a lifetime of mining. But with this newfound interest came an open door leading out of Coalwood.
Based on a true story that was previously recounted by Hickman's son, Homer Hickman, Jr., in the book Rocket Boys, October Sky is a wonderful example of the power of education to liberate people, and also of the ignorance and resistance to change that permeates our society. In the movie these two opposites are embodied by Homer's science teacher, Miss Riley, on the positive side, and his father on the negative side.
Taken with the whole concept of building and launching rockets, Homer and some friends came together in an attempt to duplicate what the Soviets had done; but on a much smaller scale (and certainly with more limited financial resources). Idolizing Wernher von Braun, Homer took it upon himself to learn higher math and achieve his goal of building and launching a model rocket from scratch.
The odds were stacked against him-what with the general apathy of the community and hostility of his father-but Homer forged on. When the hard work was done and the harvest arrived, the rewards were bittersweet. In the midst of success Homer found himself viewed as a failure by his father, who always took pride in the fact that his son would follow his example.
As a father myself, watching the behavior of John Hickman brought some anger to my heart. I have difficulty accepting parents who do not support their children-especially when the child's interests are so positive. But as the film went on I realized that John Hickman was a good man at heart who simply didn't know how to express himself towards his son. There is no doubt that he loved Homer dearly and in the end only wanted what was best for him. He just couldn't come to terms with the fact that Homer would not follow the path he had envisioned.
Miss Riley, on the other hand, supported Homer to the bitter end, defying the school administration to provide him with books he needed to realize his dream-all while she watched her own dreams flicker away in terminal illness. If there is one thing our society needs most, it is more teachers like Frieda Riley who foster a love of learning in our youth and support them as they form and explore interests. In this, October Sky places education in a positive light.
At the same time, the film also exposes the realities of education. Coalwood's school operates on the premise that the kids do not need to think, but rather only need to be prepared for working in the mines. In fact, the school penalizes teachers who attempt to push students to achieve more. The sad fact is that-while no one would admit to preventing children from expanding their minds-our education systems generally do not push for better results. Their is an unfortunate and possibly deadly attitude that is content to settle for mediocrity.
You may be asking yourself about now where all of this is leading and why this non-SF movie is being reviewed on a SF site. Well, the reason is two-fold. The most obvious is the fact that the launch of Sputnik marked the beginning of our journey to the stars, a journey that is still in its infancy-at least in reality. In our minds however, we have traveled to distant galaxies and explored the most exotic locales imaginable. In this respect the genre of SF owes a great debt to the events of 1957.
The second reason is the one which I have been discussing in the latter parts of this article: education. SF is made up of many elements ranging from quarks to galactic clusters. Many of the elements are, like the examples just given, tangible objects. Others, however, are intangible-emotion, adventure, exploration. One very important intangible is education. Of the various futures portrayed in SF, one that is very common is a future in which educational levels are far superior to those of today. Perhaps the departure of a species from its planetary cradle necessitates an increased emphasis on education.
is one of the greatest influences available to today's
youth that has the power to inspire them to pursue
careers in science and other mind-expanding areas.
It is great to see a movie that, though only loosely
related to SF, portrays science in a positive light
and shows that the pursuit of dreams is something
worthwhile.In real life Homer Hickman went on to become
a NASA engineer. A single event-the launching of Sputnik
1-forever changed the course of his life and led him
to a future he could have never imagined. October
Sky could inspire you as well.