Rocket Boys

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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.
Parents and Children Theme Icon

As Homer struggles to complete a successful rocket and win a medal at the science fair, he also finds himself in a conflicted relationship with his parents: his father, Homer Sr., and his mother, Elsie. During the course of Rocket Boys, he learns important lessons about the parent-child relationship, and also learns how to balance his desire for love and attention from his parents with the frustrating reality that he’ll never be particularly close with them.

It’s clear almost immediately that Homer’s parents play an important role in his rocketry, though in different ways and for complicated reasons. Elsie positively encourages Homer to build rockets, though she does so in part because she wants to prove to Homer Sr. that Homer is capable of greatness. In contrast, Homer Sr.’s disinterest in his son’s experiments ironically drives Homer more than anything else to continue with rocketry. Homer makes it clear that he wants to earn his father’s respect by succeeding at rocket design. He’s jealous of the attention Homer Sr. pays to his older brother, Jim, a star high school football player, and wants Homer Sr. to give him the same attention.

As Rocket Boys proceeds, Hickam seems to be steering us toward a happy reunion between Homer and his father. Homer Sr. grudgingly gives Homer help, using his influential position in the town mine to obtain metal and other useful materials for him. Homer also notices that someone—presumably his father—is anonymously leaving extra materials, such as new sheet metal and mathematics textbooks, for him.

At the end of Rocket Boys, one might expect Homer Sr. to reveal that it was he who’d been secretly helping Homer all along. But Hickam doesn’t play along with our expectations. In the final chapter, Homer Sr. finally launches one of Homer’s rockets—an honor that he’d always declined in the past. Nevertheless, Homer reveals in the Epilogue that he and his father never actually became close, and that Homer Sr. always preferred to maintain a stoic distance from his son.

At the close of Rocket Boys, then, Homer reaches the sobering and frustrating conclusion that while his parents have played an important role in his life and his success, there’s no rule that guarantees him a close, loving relationship with them. In the end, he thinks of his mother and father in much the same way that he thinks of his hometown. Although they are a huge influence on his life, for which he’s eternally grateful, he’ll never feel entirely comfortable with them. Instead, he looks to make new friendships and relationships in the world of science and engineering.

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Parents and Children Quotes in Rocket Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in Rocket Boys related to the theme of Parents and Children.
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.


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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 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 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 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 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 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.