Rocket Boys

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Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Cold War and the Space Race Theme Icon
The Individual vs. the Group Theme Icon
Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Parents and Children Theme Icon
Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Rocket Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance Theme Icon

The most obvious conflict in Rocket Boys is that between Homer’s dreams and the crushing reality he sees around him. Homer wants to build rockets, study engineering at college, and work for NASA, but this career path lies in stark contrast with what his father envisions for him: studying at college and then working in the coalmines of his hometown for the rest of his life. It’s also probable that most, if not all, of the miners in Homer’s community had lofty goals of their own when they were Homer’s age—goals which they’ve given up on, or failed to achieve.

Because Homer succeeds in his goal of winning a medal at the National Science Fair, it might seem that the message of Rocket Boys could be summed up as, “Believe in your dreams.” In actuality, Hickam’s message is sadder and much more realistic. While it’s true that Homer achieves many of his dreams, he also learns first-hand that achieving one’s dreams is difficult and often impossible. While most of the members of his rocket club, the BCMA, go on to study engineering in college, their path to higher education isn’t as easy as they’d assumed it would be, even after they win their science fair medal. None of the BCMA members, including Homer, get scholarship money, and Homer is only able to go to college for reasons totally outside of his control (his mother, Elsie, reveals that she’s secretly been saving money for years).

The BCMA’s success is further marred by the unlucky suffering experienced by a number of its loyal supporters. A friendly miner and BCMA collaborator, Mr. Bykovski, dies in a mining accident. Later, Homer’s dedicated teacher, Miss Riley, is diagnosed with cancer. Miss Riley’s diagnosis with cancer is particularly traumatic because she’s sent to the hospital almost immediately after the BCMA wins the National Science Medal. These tragedies offer a powerful reminder that even the greatest successes aren’t perfectly satisfying—there will always be some bad news to weigh down the good.

Homer Hickam Jr. got exactly what he wanted out of life: he excelled at engineering, and ended up working for NASA. Nevertheless, Hickam is intelligent enough to realize that not everyone can do as he did. Ultimately, he argues, people should believe in their dreams—but they should also accept that their success, or lack of success, is sometimes influenced by factors outside their control. Hickam ultimately seems to suggest that one must expect and accept some tragedy in one’s life, while continuing to believe in one’s dreams. The combination of ambition and acceptance is far more powerful than ambition alone—indeed, it’s this combination that allows Homer to succeed.

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Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance appears in each chapter of Rocket Boys. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance Quotes in Rocket Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in Rocket Boys related to the theme of Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance.
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

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 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 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 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

“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 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 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 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.

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.