Over the course of Rocket Boys, Homer must balance his own needs and ambitions with the desires—and demands—of a group. Homer’s own desires and ambitions are plain from the first chapters of Rocket Boys: he wants to study rockets, study engineering in college, and work for NASA. At first, it seems that these desires are directly opposed to the interests of his community, however, as the people of Coalwood regard Homer either as arrogant, girlish, or “too big for his britches” when they find out about his lofty plans. His high school peers tease him and threaten to beat him up, and even the adults of Coalwood—his principal, his father, his neighbors—seem to regard rockets as a danger at worst and a waste of time at best.
Homer experiences another kind of disagreement with his team of rocket enthusiasts, composed of high school friends. One of these friends, Roy Lee, contends that Homer is becoming too single-minded in his pursuit of a career at NASA—in other words, he doesn’t care enough about his friends’ contributions to the rockets, preferring to think about himself and his own ambitions. After a fight, Homer comes to see that Roy Lee is right. This episode marks a turning point in Homer’s life, and in his relationship with his friends and peers. Homer learns to be a “team player,” recognizing that his own success depends upon the help of many other people.
Ultimately, Hickam suggests that success must consist of a partnership between the individual and the group. While Homer eventually achieves his dreams (winning a medal at the Science Fair, working for NASA, etc.), he only does so because of the extraordinary generosity and support of the people of Coalwood: the adults who help him find the raw material for his rockets, as well as his friends. Just as the people of Coalwood come to understand and respect Homer’s aspirations and interests, so Homer develops considerable respect for the people of Coalwood. Success, Rocket Boys shows, is more than just a compromise between the needs of the individual and that of the group—such a partnership also hinges on mutual understanding and respect.
The Individual vs. the Group ThemeTracker
The Individual vs. the Group Quotes in Rocket Boys
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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!”
Yet I believe for those of us who keep it in our hearts, Coalwood still lives.