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.
The Individual vs. the Group Theme Icon

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.

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The Individual vs. the Group ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Rocket Boys related to the theme of The Individual vs. the Group.
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. 


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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 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 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.

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.