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.
Parents and Children ThemeTracker
Parents and Children Quotes in Rocket Boys
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”