Rocket Boys

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dell edition of Rocket Boys published in 2000.
Chapter 1 Quotes

For all the knowledge and pleasure they gave me, the books I read in childhood did not allow me to see myself past Coalwood. Almost all the grown-up Coalwood boys I knew had either joined the military services or gone to work in the mine. I had no idea what the future held in store for me.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer Hickam Jr., the protagonist of Rocket Boys, grows up in a town where the vast majority of residents never leave even after they've grown into adults. Furthermore, most of the adults who stay in the town end up working in the mine—the cornerstone of the town's economy.

Homer Jr.'s ambition eventually leads him to build a rocket, earn a scholarship to college, and become a notable rocket engineer. But as a young boy, he has no idea that he'll take an engineering path later on. All he has is a strong instinct to escape the confines of his town and explore the world—an instinct he describes in this quotation. But Homer makes it very clear that this instinct by itself simply isn't enough to get him out of town: he becomes a rocket scientist because of his natural curiosity, but also because of his hard work, his accidental discovery of rockets, and sheer luck. By showing that his curiosity and adventurousness are necessary but insufficient for escaping from town, Homer makes it clear that he is "one of the lucky ones." Many of his childhood friends were just as curious or ambitious as he was, but didn't have the good fortune to find their passion, go to college, and leave town.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“As I’m sure you know by now,” Mr. Turner said in his deliberate manner, “the Russians have launched a satellite into space. There have been many calls for the United states to do something in response. The Big Creek Student Council today has responded to, and I quote, the ‘threat of Sputnik’ by passing a resolution—I have it in my hand now—that dedicates the remainder of the school year to academic excellence. I approve the council’s resolution.”

Related Characters: Mr. R.L. Turner (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Rocket Boys is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the long, semi-militaristic confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1947 to 1991. Over the course of nearly half a century, the two dominant superpowers of the world, America and Russia, competed with one another for economic and political control of the world. The competition took many forms; the one most relevant to Rocket Boys is the Space Race. During the Space Race, inaugurated by the Soviets' launch of the satellite Sputnik into space, the two countries competed to produce the most powerful rockets and vehicles for space exploration. It was believed by both sides that success in space exploration was a way to assert superiority over one's political rivals.

As the quotation shows, one major consequence of the Space Race was a renewed focus on math and science in American schools. Following the launch of Sputnik (the satellite mentioned in the quote), national educational reform ensured that students would spend more time studying math and science, the two subjects deemed most relevant to building rockets and satellites that could compete with Russia's. Studying hard during the Space Race—not to mention building rockets--was considered an important, even patriotic mission, as every science book supposedly brought the U.S. closer to besting Russia.

The men crossed the tracks and I saw the glint of their lunch buckets in the tipple light, and I came slowly back to reality. They weren’t explorers on the moon, just Coalwood miners going to work. And I wasn’t on von Braun’s team. I was a boy in Coalwood, West Virginia. All of a sudden, that wasn’t good enough.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Wernher von Braun
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspired by the launch of Sputnik, Homer Jr. wants to build rockets that can soar high into space, eclipsing Sputnik. But Homer's ambitions go much deeper than the desire to design impressive rockets. Suddenly, Homer sees a new path for himself in life—a path that will take him out of the town of Coalwood to engineer rockets for Dr. Werner von Braun, the most famous rocket scientist in the world. (In real life, von Braun was a former Nazi scientist who, due to his vast intelligence and talent, was recruited by the United States to build American weapons.)

Homer Jr. has always had vague ambitions to explore the world and get out of Coalwood. But it's not until the beginning of the Space Race that he finds a suitable plan to focus his ambitions. Rockets represent a way for Homer to escape a life spent mining coal in West Virginia: he thinks that if he builds impressive rockets he'll be able to escape his childhood home forever.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I knew Dad thought about Jim all the time, was always telling people what a great football player my brother was, and how he was going to tear up the world in football when he went to college.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr. , Jim Hickam
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

At home, Homer Jr. competes with his brother, Jim, for the attention of their father, Homer Sr., the chief engineer of the Coalwood coal mine. Jim is as different from Homer Jr. as two brothers can be: as the quotation explains, Jim is a talented football player, and Homer Sr. supports Jim's athleticism, since he thinks Jim will be able to go to college on a scholarship, get an education, and make a better life for himself. Homer Jr. is clearly jealous of Jim's success. More to the point, he's jealous that his father is impressed with Jim's dreams of playing college ball, but pays little attention to Homer's dreams of launching rockets.

The quotation is important because it shows that one of Homer's primary motivations for building rockets is impressing his family, especially his father. While Homer wants to go to college, meet Dr. von Braun, etc., his dreams are also very simple: he wants his father to love and respect him.

I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at her. She sighed. “To get out of here, you’ve got to show your dad you’re smarter than he thinks. I believe you can build a rocket. He doesn’t. I want you to show him I’m right and he’s wrong. Is that too much to ask?”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Elsie Lavender Hickam (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr.
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Homer's mother, Elsie, gives her son the encouragement he needs to build rockets. Elsie knows that Homer wants to design rockets, and she also recognizes that he wants to do so partly to impress his father, who's always turned a deaf ear to Homer's accomplishments. Elsie tells her son to build rockets to prove Homer Sr. wrong: to prove that Homer Jr.'s dreams of engineering aren't just dreams at all.

The quotation also sheds light on Elsie's motivations for encouraging Homer. While it's true that Elsie, like any loving mother, wants her son to succeed, there's also a more complicated side to her actions. As Homer Jr. makes clear throughout Rocket Boys, Elsie is frustrated with her life in Coalwood: she doesn't have many creative outlets, and she seems unable to discuss her problems with Homer Sr., since he's been living in Coalwood for years, and can't sympathize with her. In part, then, Elsie tells Homer Jr. to build rockets because Homer's success will be an outlet for her own frustrations: she wants her child to succeed and escape town because she can't.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“You gonna build another [rocket]?” asked Tom Tickle, one of the single miners who lived in the Club House.
Tom was friendly. “Yes, sir, I am,” I said.
“Well, attaboy!” the step group chorused.
“Shee-it. All he can do is build a bomb,” Pooky said.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Pooky Suggs (speaker), Tom Tickle (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Homer Jr. goes through a lot of teasing during his time as a "rocket boy," he's also fortunate to come across people who support his science projects whole-heartedly. In this quotation, Homer crosses paths with Tom Tickle, an enthusiastic supporter of rocket-building, but also Pooky Suggs, one of Homer's most frequent detractors.

Pooky's nasty criticism of Homer Jr.'s rockets tells us a lot about the kind of man he is. In part, Pooky bullies Homer because he's been arguing with Homer Sr., Homer's father. But also, Pooky resents Homer for daring to dream of something truly original. Pooky is a frustrated, lonely young man, and he's jealous of Homer for finding a creative outlet that Pooky himself can never understand.

On the other hand, Tom's enthusiasm for Homer's rocket science reminds us that there's nothing particularly "un-Coalwood" about Homer's project. On the contrary, Homer only succeeds in building successful rockets because of the support and mentorship of the townspeople: their ingenuity and encouragement gives Homer the skill and confidence he needs. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

The first rocket emitted a boil of nasty, stinking, yellowish smoke and then fell over, the glue on its fins melted. “Wonderful,” Roy Lee muttered, holding his nose. Quentin silently wrote the result down on a scrap of notebook paper. Body of knowledge.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Roy Lee (speaker), Quentin
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation is important because it shows us how much failure and bitterness Homer Jr. has to deal with before he attains any real success with rocket science. Many of Homer's early rockets don't launch at all—they just burn up on the launch pad, or explode, or worse.

In the quote, Hickam shows us two possible reactions to the rocket's failure: Roy Lee's and Quentin's. Roy Lee, an ambitious but somewhat impatient boy, is irritated by the failure of the rocket. Quentin, on the other hand, doesn't think of the rocket as a failure at all. An important part of the scientific method, he understands, is recognizing what not to do. Therefore, a rocket that burns up on the launchpad communicates some valuable lessons to the Rocket Boys. Quentin's patience and wisdom about the way science works is invaluable to Homer and his team as they proceed with their work.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“Maybe one day we’ll have a trophy in here, Sonny, for our rockets.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Absolutely not. Every spring, science students present their projects for judging at the county science fair. If you win there, you go to the state and then the nationals. Big Creek’s never won anything, but I bet we could with our rockets.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Quentin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

After Homer Jr. and his friends begin designing rockets, they get a taste for rocket building: in other words, at this early stage in the book, they're building rockets for fun. A turning point comes during this scene, when Quentin tells Homer about the annual science fair, and suggests that the BCMA (rocket team) could enter their rockets in the competition. Judging by Homer's behavior in the scene, he's never heard of the science fair before. Homer's surprise, then, is a reminder that he would never have succeeded in becoming a rocket science had it not been for friends like Quentin. Homer may be intelligent and ambitious, but he's not always sure how to go about translating his enthusiasm into actual success (had it not been for Quentin, after all, he may not have entered the science fair, won a medal, gone to college, or become a scientist).

Chapter 7 Quotes

“You want to thank me.” He nodded toward the box. “Make these fly. Show your dad what you and I did together.”
My father had clearly, in no uncertain terms, told me to stop building rockets. The BCMA was now an outlaw organization. I don’t know why, but that felt good. I had the urge to hug Mr. Bykovski, but resisted it. Instead, I stood straight and tall, and said firmly, and what I hoped was manfully, “Yes, sir. You can count on me.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Mr. Isaac Bykovski (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr.
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer Jr. goes to many neighbors and friends for help as he designs his rockets, and one of the most important mentors he comes across is Isaac Bykovski. Isaac teaches Homer valuable information about rocket design, and acts as a supportive father figure in place of Homer Sr.'s criticism. But then Homer Sr. fires Isaac from his job in the metal shop—Homer Sr. doesn't want anyone helping his son building rockets. In this scene, Isaac tells Homer Jr. to keep building rockets anyway.

The scene is important partly because it shows Homer Jr. accumulating a "debt" to the people in his community. While it's true that Homer Jr. feels a strong ambition to build rockets and go to college, he's helped along this path by dozens of mentors and friends in the town of Coalwood. By the end of the book, Homer isn't just launching rockets for himself; he's launching rockets because he "owes" it to people like Isaac. Furthermore, the scene is important because it shows us how Homer Jr. becomes an adult in the process of designing rockets. Here, Homer comes to learn the concept of honor-he must honor Isaac's help and support by succeeding with his project. Rockets aren't a childish diversion for Homer; they teach him the importance of honor, as well as integrity, loyalty, and maturity.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“Love to help ya, I really would,” he said, “but I don’t have enough for my roof as it is.”
I looked up. “But your roof is shingled.”
He nodded “If I had shingles, I’d use ‘em. But I don’t. I’ve got tin.”
“Emmett Jones has a bunch of shingles stacked up next to his coal box,” O’Dell said. “almost the same color.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Reverend “Little” Richard (speaker), Emmett Jones
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Homer and the other BCMA members get an impromptu lesson in engineering. They're trying to find materials to design rockets and a rocket launching pad, but find it difficult to track down the necessary metal and shingles. Here, the Reverend Richard gives the boys some advice in obtaining resources, referring them to someone (Emmett) who has what the boys need.

During their days as engineers, the Rocket Boys are often forced to spend large hours tracking down the materials they need to build rockets. Their mission to track down shingles and tin might seem like a waste of time, considering that many other students in the country wouldn't have to go to such an effort—their parents would have the money to just buy them what they needed. But surprisingly, having to track down resources doesn't necessarily disadvantage the BCMA: on the contrary, it makes them better workers and better scientists. Where wealthier students would buy tin and shingles without batting an eye, the BCMA are forced to think critically and practically about what materials would make for the best rockets, as their decisions about design and material need to be well thought-out in a way that their wealthier rivals' decisions don't. Furthermore, tracking down materials trains the boys to be gifted problem-solvers. When launching rockets, they apply the same resourcefulness they've acquired while tracking down what they need.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“We’re making progress.” I put out my hand, palm down. “Come on, put your hand on mine, like the football team does.”
One by one, Sherman, O’Dell Roy Lee, and Quentin solemnly placed their hands one on top of the other, all on top of mine. “Rocket boys,” I said. “Rocket boys forever!”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), O’Dell , Sherman , Quentin , Roy Lee
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Homer and his new friends christen themselves the "rocket boys." The scene is full of symbolism; most importantly, the rocket boys take on the behaviors of football players, cheering for their "team." As Homer has already made clear, science and math have eclipsed football as the point of emphasis in Coalwood schools. It's only appropriate, then, that the rocket boys behave like football players—the science students have replaced the jocks.

More generally, though, the scene establishes the importance of groups for Homer and his friends. Homer doesn't always have much in common with his fellow rocket boys, and yet they're all united in their ambitions of building rockets and going to college. By working together, the rocket boys all benefit. There are many times throughout the novel when one of the boys considers leaving the group altogether, and it's only because of the encouragement of the rest of the group that everyone remains involved. Individually, the rocket boys have their own strengths and weaknesses: together, their strengths multiply and their weaknesses disappear.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Instead of swaggering heroically through the halls in their green and white letter jackets, Jim and the football boys trudged to class sullen and trigger-sensitive to insult.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Jim Hickam
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In his final year of high school, Jim Hickam is dismayed to learn that football has been cancelled in West Virginia schools. Football—a staple of community life in Coalwood—has been cancelled because of the national shifts in the school system. Because of the Space Race, schools have decided to focus their attention on math and science, and suddenly football is seen as a distraction from the subjects that "really matter." In this quotation, we see the results of the changes in the school system: Jim and his football buddies are understandably angry and upset about not having an outlet for their talents and ambitions. The quote also foreshadows the way that Homer Jr. and his friends will become the new heroes of the school: their rocket launches will become a community "event," filling the vacuum created by the banning of football games.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Machining and materials for gravel. Gravel, like all things in Coalwood, could be supplied by my father. After I completed my engineering drawing of the nozzle, there was nothing to do but to go up to the mine. Dad looked up from his desk when I entered his office. “I heard you’ve been talking to Ike Bykovski,” he said. “And now you’re visiting Leon Ferro. You get around, don’t you?”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr. (speaker), Mr. Isaac Bykovski , Mr. Leon Ferro
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer Jr. is under strict instructions from his father, Homer Sr., not to build any more rockets. In part, Homer Sr. doesn't want his son building rockets because he thinks they're a danger to the mine: indeed, Homer's first rocket blows up, nearly hurting bystanders. Furthermore, Homer Sr. doesn't want Homer Jr. asking anyone in town—Ike and Leon included—about rocket design. In this quotation, Homer Sr. calls out his son for disobeying him on more than one occasion.

Homer Sr.'s gruffness in this scene might suggest that he doesn't want his son building rockets—in other words, just reiterating what he told his son earlier. But the very fact that Homer Sr. knows so much about Homer Jr.'s actions may suggest that he's keeping on eye on Homer Jr. for reasons other than criticizing or punishing him. As the book goes on, Hickam leads us to believe that Homer Sr. is grudgingly impressed with his son's intelligence and determination. So as intimidating as Homer Sr. might seem to be in this scene, there's also faint suggestion that he's secretly impressed with and supportive of his son.

“Mining’s in your blood, little man,” he shrugged. “I guess you’ll figure that out, sooner or later.”
“I still want to work for Dr. von Braun.”
He nodded. “We’ll see.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr. (speaker), Wernher von Braun
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

In this confrontation between Homer Sr. and Homer Jr., a lot is revealed about both characters. Homer Jr. makes it very clear that he has lofty ambitions of working for NASA, under the leadership of Werner von Braun. Indeed, von Braun is something of an alternate "father figure" for Homer Jr.—a role model. Homer Jr.'s love for von Braun suggests that he sees something insufficient in his father's personality and career choice: he wants to be something more than a mining engineer, and for this reason he looks beyond Coalwood for his heroes.

Homer Sr.'s behavior in this scene is equally revealing. He's an engineer, meaning that he can't entirely dislike what his son is doing with rockets. Homer Jr.'s rocket launches are a tribute to his father's own talents as an engineer (one could say that engineering, not mining, is in his blood). So it's not that Homer Sr. doesn't want his son to become a NASA engineer; instead, he just doesn't think this is a realistic dream. Homer Sr. wants his son to have a good, steady job that will enable him to raise a family. It's for this reason that he wants his son to abandon rocket science for the time being and focus on becoming a mining employee.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I suddenly felt proud of [my father], more than for just his long-ago act of heroism, but because of what he had once been back in Gary and all that he had become because of his hard work.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr.
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer discovers that his father is a hero: years ago, Homer Sr. found a baby in a burning building, and he risked his own life to carry the baby to safety. Years later, Homer meets that "baby," now a grown woman named Geneva Eggers, and learns about his father's bravery.

In spite of the anger he sometimes feels toward his father—mostly when his father forbids him from pursuing his passion of building rockets—Homer also develops a deep respect for the way his father has lived his life. It is important to note that it's not Homer Sr.'s bravery that really impresses Homer. Rather, Homer is more impressed with Homer Sr.'s hard work and perseverance while working for the mine in Coalwood. Homer's respect for his father's hard work suggests that it "takes one to know one"; in other words, Homer respects his father because Homer himself has been working very hard on his rockets.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“When you grow up, you’re going to find out there’s a lot of things you’re going to have to do whether you like it or not.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Sr. (speaker)
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

When Homer Sr. finds out that Homer Jr. is teaching himself calculus so that he can better calculate the heights attained by rockets, Homer Sr. is irritated, and criticizes his son for teaching himself mathematics. In this quotation, Homer Sr. gives his son a blunt, simple explanation of why he's wasting his time with rockets. Homer Sr. is trying to convince his son to become a mining engineer in Coalwood. As he says here, being a mining engineer in Coalwood is hardly an ideal position, but being an adult involves doing certain things you don't want to do.

While Homer Sr.  has a point, he goes too far in discouraging his son from learning calculus—surely calculus is useful information whether one becomes a rocket or a mining engineer. Homer Sr.'s continued irritation with his son suggests that he doesn't like Homer Jr.'s rocket projects for personal, psychological reasons. As Homer Sr. makes clear in the quotation, his own adulthood has been full of failures and bitter compromises. Homer Jr.'s enthusiasm reminds Homer Sr. of his own youthful ambition—ambition which was sadly thwarted. So Homer Sr. is being both protective of and poisonous to his son: he wants to protect Homer Jr. from the same failures he went through, but in doing so, he's killing his child's dreams.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I told him about my conversation with the machinist. “I think he’s right,”: I said. “It’ll take us forever your way.”
“And when this rocket blows up and you don’t have a clue what caused it?” Quentin asked, his face pinched. “What will you have learned then?”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Quentin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

This excerpt shows us one of the most important clashes between Quentin and Homer. The quotation is also important because it underscores the differences between Quentin and Homer's ways of conducting scientific research. After the BCMA proposes a number of major changes to rocket design, Homer wants to add all 5 or 6 changes modifications to the group's rockets at the same time. Quentin, however, believes that the changes should be added one at a time; this will allow the group to identify the results of each change, establishing a more scientific relationship between causes and effects.

The quotation shows that Homer may be a little too enthusiastic about rocket designing: in his haste to build a good rocket, he takes short cuts and neglects the important scientific research needed to maximize results. It's also the case that Quentin is a little too cautious and slow-paced: in his love of the scientific method, he's ignoring the fact that the BCMA only has a finite amount of time before the upcoming science fair.

While Quentin turns out to be right about the need for a careful, slow-paced approach to rocket design, the more important point here is that Homer and Quentin need each other; in other words, they balance each other out. Only as a group can the BCMA succeed—if it were just Quentin or just Homer, the rockets would never win any prizes.

Chapter 18 Quotes

“Ike built your rockets,” Doc said resolutely, “because he wanted the best for you, the same as if you were his own son. You and all the children in Coalwood belong to all the people. It’s an unwritten law, but that’s the way everybody feels.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), “Doc” Lassiter (speaker), Mr. Isaac Bykovski
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

After Isaac helps Homer Jr. with his rockets, Homer Sr. sends him sent to the mines as punishment. During his time in the mines, Isaac dies in a tragic accident, and Homer blames himself for the death: if he hadn't asked about rockets, Isaac would never have been in the mine in the first place. In this scene, Doc Lassiter encourages Homer to continue with his experiments. Doc's main point is that in the tiny town of Coalwood, everyone helps everyone else out, family or not.

Doc's quote is an eloquent summary of small-town American life. In Coalwood, there's an "unwritten law" that compels people like Doc and Isaac help Homer pursue his dreams. (Of course, another reality of small-town life is that there are lots of people whom Homer can't avoid seeing almost every day, and who try to bully him into giving up his dream.) Dozens of people support Homer, lending him their time, money, and resources as if he were their own son. One result of this setup is that Homer owes it not only to himself but to other people to continue with his rockets. It's for this reason that Doc wants Homer to keep pursuing his dreams.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“Sonny,” [Miss Riley] said, “a lot has happened to you, probably more than you know. But I’m telling you, if you stop working on your rockets now, you’ll regret it maybe for the rest of your life.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Miss Riley (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

With only a short time before the year's science fair, Homer wonders if he should give up building rockets out of guilt for (supposedly) causing the death of Isaac Bykovski. It's only because of the encouragement of mentors like Miss Riley that Homer finds the strength to continue with his project. Here, Miss Riley tells Homer that if he gives up now he'll regret his choice forever.

Miss Riley's advice reminds us that Homer doesn't succeed in life simply because the people of Coalwood give him their time, money, and technical expertise, but because they give him their wisdom as well. Miss Riley is young, but she's seen more of life than Homer has; for this reason, she knows full well that Homer's guilt at causing Isaac's death will transform into regret at having given up so suddenly.

Chapter 20 Quotes

There, with nobody around but Roy Lee, Sherman, and O’Dell, I could be just another boy again. I put Coalwood and even my parents out of my mind and took in all the sounds and sights and smells of God’s nature everywhere about me. For the first time in months, I was genuinely happy.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), O’Dell , Sherman , Roy Lee
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Homer and his friends on the BCMA take a camping trip outside of Coalwood. During the course of their trip, Homer begins to get over his sense of guilt for Isaac Bykovski's death. He's been fixated on having caused Isaac's death for weeks and weeks. In part, he's been feeling so guilty because he's been surrounded by the same buildings and people—each one a reminder of some connection between Homer and Isaac, and therefore a reminder of Homer's guilt. Outside of Coalwood and away from most people, Homer finds it easier to move on with his life, focusing on what he's most passionate about—rocketry and his friends. In general, Homer finds here that his friends are one of his most important "resources" in life. On the many occasions when he's at the point of quitting rocketry altogether, his friends encourage him to stick with it.

Chapter 22 Quotes

“You had the calculus class, Quentin. You work them.”
“No,” he said adamantly. “Miss Riley gave you the book. You know calculus as well as I do. Quit stalling!”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Quentin (speaker), Miss Riley
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the final steps in Homer's training as a scientist is his mastery of calculus. Because he's not admitted into calculus class in school, he's forced to study the subject on his own time. While many people help Homer learn mathematics, his most important "tutor" is actually Quentin.  Quentin teaches Homer the ins and outs of calculus, but even more importantly, he encourages Homer to overcome his "mental block" on the subject. As Quentin says here, Homer is just as good at math as Quentin himself is; the difference is that Quentin knows he's good at math, while Homer is so used to thinking of himself as a second-rate student that he finds it hard to work hard at calculus.

Chapter 24 Quotes

Kennedy seemed to be energized by the response. “If I’m elected president,” he said, “I think maybe we will go to the moon.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), John F. Kennedy (speaker)
Page Number: 336
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer Jr. goes into a nearby town to buy a suit for the science fair, and while he's there, he witnesses John F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate, making a speech. Homer asks Kennedy if man will use rockets to go to the moon, and Kennedy replies that perhaps America will go to the moon. (In real life, Kennedy's emphasis on space exploration led to the United States sending a team of astronauts to the moon in 1969).

The scene suggests that Homer and Kennedy are somehow kindred spirits—young, curious, idealistic men inspired to use science and technology to explore the world. The scene also implies that the Space Race was about much more than a militaristic competition with the Soviet Union (even if that's how the Space Race began). Homer's question for Kennedy betrays his optimism and curiosity; these qualities, as much as a desire to compete with Russia, brought America to the moon in 1969.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Jake jammed his hands in his pockets, sighed, and looked up at the mountains. “I’m not a religious man, Sonny. You want parables and proverbs, go to church. But I believe there’s a plan for each of us—you, me, Freida too. It doesn’t help to get mad about it or want to whip up on God about it. It’s just the way it is. You’ve got to accept it.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Jake Mosby (speaker), Miss Riley
Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:

Toward the end of the novel, Homer learns that Miss Riley, his beloved schoolteacher and mentor, has been diagnosed with cancer. Heartbroken, Homer turns to his friend Jake Mosby for help and advice. Jake offers Homer some wisdom: he suggests that there is a "plan" for everybody, meaning that people should accept when bad things happen to them. Although Jake's words might sound religious, or even explicitly Christian, he insists that they aren't. Whether one believes in God or not, it's important to accept that there are things in life, both good and bad, outside anyone's control.

Jake's advice for Homer is important because it helps Homer understand his own place in the town of Coalwood. Homer has been extremely successful as a rocket designer: in fact, he's won a prestigious medal for his work. While Homer achieved success in part because of his own ingenuity, there were many factors outside his or anyone else's control that led him to success, such as the timing of the Space Race, the establishment of a special "rocketry" category at the science fair, etc. In short, Homer gradually learns to understand that there are many things in life—both bad and good—that are outside our control; accepting this fact is part of growing into a mature adult.

Chapter 26 Quotes

“You did really good, Dad,” I told him as a spasm of deep, oily coughs racked his body. “Nobody ever launched a better rocket than you.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr.
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 362
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Homer allows his father, who's suffering from a horrible coughing fit brought on by decades of working in a mine, to launch the BCMA's final rocket. When the rocket reaches up to a great height, Homer Jr. tells his father that he (Homer Sr.) did a great job launching the rocket. The quotation foreshadows Homer Sr.'s tragic death from lung complications, but the quote also captures an important step in Homer Jr.'s coming of age. Homer seems unusually mature and civil in the way he treats his father. It would be easy for Homer to taunt Homer Sr.—to remind his father of how he once forbade Homer from building any rockets at all. Instead, Homer compliments and encourages his father, showing that Homer has become a mature young man.

Finally, the quote underscores both a poignant moment of closeness and the continued distance between Homer Junior and Homer Senior. By all rights, it should be Homer Sr. complimenting his son on his superlative rocket designs. And yet Homer Sr. never offers such congratulations. Hickam suggests that Homer Sr. is too proud and too stubborn to admit that he was wrong to ban his son from rocket design; but in this brief, almost cathartic moment, the two are united and support each other. However, the politeness and sadness of the scene suggest that Homer will never feel completely close with his father—a conclusion that Hickam confirms in the novel's Epilogue.

Epilogue Quotes

Yet I believe for those of us who keep it in our hearts, Coalwood still lives.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 368
Explanation and Analysis:

Years later, Homer Jr. looks back on his childhood in Coalwood with a complex mixture of emotions. On one hand, he resents the fact that so many people bullied him for building rockets. He also dislikes that Coalwood was so anti-intellectual in general; there were many times when Homer's peers teased him for daring to be passionate about something other than football. And yet Homer can't entirely ignore his childhood in Coalwood. For every person who bullied Homer, there was someone else who offered him enthusiastic support and advice in rocket design. Even more importantly, the challenges and adversities that Homer had to work through to build rockets made him a harder worker and a better scientist.

In short, Homer—now a talented NASA engineer—cannot separate his current success from his past experiences in Coalwood. Even if Coalwood wasn't always the most supportive place for a budding scientist, it made him the strong, respectful, hardworking man he is today. As a result, Homer believes that Coalwood lives on—though in reality the town disappeared when the mine folded—in his own character, in his success as a scientist, and in the lives of his friends and peers. 

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