The narrator, Homer Hickam, Jr., describes his “coming of age.” By learning to build rockets, he explains, he discovered his “own truths.”
In this short opening section, Hickam sketches out the arc of his book: learning rocket science will, in essence, help him come of age.
Homer describes his hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia. In 1957, the year Homer began building rockets, there were only 2,000 people living there. Homer’s father is Homer Hickam Sr., who works as the superintendent of a coal mine. Homer lives in a company-owned house: in other words, a mining company charges his family to live in the house. There is coal dust everywhere—so much that it’s become a town ritual to scrape the coal off the walls of houses every spring.
There’s an implicit contrast in these opening sections between the drudgery of life in a coal town—the dust, the hard work underground, etc.—and the thrilling spectacle of a rocket rising above the ground. It’s important to understand the family and community Homer is coming from, in order to understand where he’s going.
Homer describes Coalwood in more detail. There is a Main Street (built by the mining company that dominates life in Coalwood), and along it are a church, a post office, a dentist and doctor, and the Big Store (the town grocery and supply store). On the big hill overlooking Coalwood, the company superintendent lives in a large mansion, and oversees mining affairs. There are two main “clusters” of houses where the miners live: Middletown and Frog Level. Homer’s family lives away from the miner houses, at the intersection between the state highway and the path to the mine. Homer recalls his friend the Reverend “Little” Richard, who presides over a small, non-company church. The Reverend would amuse Homer with his Bible stories, and ask Homer if he’d accepted the Lord. Homer would always reply that he wasn’t sure—surprisingly, the Reverend accepted this answer.
Homer’s uncertainty about God suggests a possible “path” he’s to walk during the course of the novel—perhaps replacing his spiritual uncertainty with religious faith. It’s also important that Hickam establishes the dominance of the mining company over Coalwood. Throughout the book, Homer will struggle with his family’s rules, many of which stem from the rules and unwritten laws of the mining company itself. It’s remarkable to read about a town where a single company has such a dominant role—the economy of mining towns like Coalwood depended totally on their mine, and therefore on the company that owned the mine.
The company church is presided over by Reverend Josiah Lanier, a Methodist. Whenever there is a new Reverend, Homer recalls, the religious denomination of the entire town changes. The town has had Pentecostal, Methodist, and Baptist reverends, and changed its faith every time.
At many points in the novel, Homer will be accused of disrupting the stability of life in Coalwood. It’s important to keep in mind Homer’s observation from this section: life in Coalwood isn’t all that stable to begin with—it’s constantly changing to reflect the mining company’s wishes.
Growing up, Homer’s friends at school are Roy Lee, O’Dell, Tony, and Sherman. He invents a fictional Indian tribe, the “Coalhicans,” and acts out stories about the tribe with his friends. Sometimes, Homer plays with his brother Jim as well. Once Tony hurt himself playing, and the company doctor, “Doc” Lassiter, put his arm in a cast. Afterwards, Tony’s father died in the mine, and Tony’s mother was forced to leave Coalwood.
Even as a young child, Homer is imaginative and creative, suggesting the innovation he’ll show as a “rocket boy.” At the same time, this section reminds us of the harsh realities of life in Coalwood. Because of the dangers of work in the mine, one’s parents could die at any time in a freak accident.
At dinner one night, Homer listens to his parents talk about the history of Coalwood (his brother, Jim, would usually ignore these stories). Coalwood was founded by George L. Carter, who quickly discovered coal beneath the ground. He bought up land and installed stores, houses, and medical services. Under Carter’s guidance, Coalwood became an important mining site. Carter’s son, William Laird, was a Stanford graduate and a talented engineer, whom everyone called “The Captain.” Laird ensured that the miners’ quality of life was high—he installed parks, libraries, and a football field. As a result, Coalwood became one of the safest and most pleasant mining towns in the state.
Homer is curious and inquisitive, while Jim seems less so. This suggests that Homer is unsure about his place in the world—he wants to understand his town because he’s vaguely dissatisfied with it. Homer is intelligent enough to recognize that Coalwood is one of the better towns in West Virginia, at least as far as mining towns go—it has schools, parks, and other “luxuries” that some of the surrounding areas don’t have.
Homer’s father has been working for the mine since he was 22 years old. Laird recognized that Homer Hickam Sr. was an intelligent man, and quickly promoted him to foreman. Hickam wrote to his high school sweetheart—Elsie Lavender—asking her to move to Coalwood and marry him. Elsie refused at first, but later relented when Laird himself wrote her, begging her to come to Coalwood. Shortly thereafter, Elsie married Homer Sr. Homer Jr. often thinks that she regrets this decision.
Homer Sr. will be an important character in Rocket Boys, and his relationship with Homer will be a crucial part of Homer’s decision to build rockets. The tension between Elsie and Homer Sr. will also be important throughout the memoir—it often seems that both Homer and Elsie are working to defy Homer Sr.
Homer Sr.’s father, whom Homer calls Poppy, moved to Coalwood along with his son, and worked there until he suffered an accident that left him in continuous pain for the rest of his life. To soothe his pain, he read books. Then, the town doctor prescribed him the painkiller paregoric, and afterwards, he never read another book.
From the first chapter, Homer suggests that intelligence, intellectualism, and bookishness are actually drawbacks in the community of Coalwood, and it takes energy and drive to continue with one’s studies.
In 1950, Homer Sr. discovered that he had colon cancer. Instead of seeking medical attention, he devoted himself to his work. Eventually he passed out and had to be carried to the hospital. Despite having much of his intestine removed, Homer Sr. returned to the mines in less than a month.
Homer Sr.’s devotion to the mine is apparent long before Homer’s interest in rockets arises. Although he’ll quarrel frequently with his father, Homer always has a grudging respect for his father’s energy, loyalty, and bravery.
Growing up, Homer and Jim saw very little of their father, because he worked long hours. To entertain themselves, they watched movies at the local theater, the “Pocahontas Theater.” In the afternoon, they would see the daily “shift” of workers moving to and from the mines. Sometimes, they would throw Coke bottles at the coal trains passing through town.
Homer shows us the “mindless” diversions available to Coalwood youths. It’s important that we understand these diversions, so that the sheer oddness of Homer’s interest in rockets is apparent to us.
One of Homer’s favorite activities is reading. His grade school teachers introduced him to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Later, he savored Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Eventually he turned to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. His teachers also forced him to read great American authors like Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. Although he enjoys reading, Homer can’t “escape” into fiction—he’s always highly conscious of the fact that the people around him will either join the military or end up working in the coalmines. His mother, Elsie, doesn’t want him to end up in the mines.
Homer’s interest in books is an early sign of his aspiration to escape his life in Coalwood. His favorite authors—the ones he reads voluntarily, not the ones his teachers assign—tell stories of escape, usually by means of science and technology—an obvious foreshadowing of Homer’s future interests. Although Homer Sr. will often tell Homer that mining is “in his blood,” it seems equally clear that on his mother’s side, so is a desire to escape from the mines.
Elsie resents Homer Sr. for spending so much time in the mines. Her four brothers, Robert, Ken, Charlie, and Joe, are miners, and her sister, Mary, is married to one. Nevertheless, she has no interest in the lives of miners—her favorite activity is working on a painting, which she never seems to finish, no matter how much time she spends with it. She repeatedly tells Homer that he’s not like the other boys in town—he’s not a miner by nature.
Many of the characters in Rocket Boys turn to creativity to escape from the drudgery of their lives. Elsie uses art—her painting—much as Homer will go on to use engineering. Yet where Homer will make progress with his rockets, Elsie never seems to make any progress with her painting. This reinforces the fact that art isn’t truly an escape for Elsie—it’s just a temporary diversion from the inescapable fact of her life in Coalwood.