Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam

First a caveat: I am not a book reviewer, or even a particularly good writer. I love to read and I love LOST, so here I am. Now on to the review.

The Coalwood Way was a beautifully written book. It reminded me of John Grisham's "other" novels, like The Painted House. Hickam's photographic memory of the home of his childhood and the characters that filled it is remarkable. The descriptions of rural America, and particularly small mining communities in the backwoods of West Virginia, in the mid-1950s are excellent. The reader comes away with a real sense of the people and the times.

The story centers around the author, Homer "Sonny" Hickam. Sonny, through the help of a favorite science teacher and the press coverage of Sputnik's flight, develops a great interest in the space program and rocketry in general. He and his like-minded friends begin to design and build their own rockets and plot their trajectory using complicated algorithms and trigonometry. For a bunch of teen aged boys in the a coal mining town in West Virginia this endeavor is completely unheard of and viewed as slightly crazy. Sonny's own family has doubts about his new found interest.

Homer Hickam Sr. is a supervisor in the local coal mine and takes his job, and the lives and livelihood of his employees and neighbors, very seriously. So seriously that he puts his own health and well being on the line daily. He also leaves very little time for his family in his schedule, especially his awkward second son that is more of a brain than a jock....or a coal miner, for that matter. Sonny is also surrounded by his no-nonsense, long-suffering mother and a host of townspeople that know his business practically before he knows it himself. The "Rocket Boys", as Sonny and his space loving friends are called, spend all of their spare time thrilling the town with rocket launches and dreams of going to Cape Canaveral to work after college (a dream that Sonny realizes, while many of the others never make it further than the coal mine down the street).

Throughout the book Sonny is desperately trying to identify the source of the gnawing sadness that overtakes him occasionally. Following the advice of "Little Richard", the preacher of the local African American congregation, Sonny finally discovers that his desire for his father's approval, and fear that he can never attain it, are causing his melancholy. As he tries to deal with these feelings he finds it difficult to keep the Rocket Boys supplied with the properly crafted parts and maintain straight-A's for the first time in his academic career.

This is a beautiful novel about teen aged self-discovery, family dynamics and small town mentality. Sonny sees discrimination, domestic violence, murder, and labor strikes play out in his town, but he also sees generosity, kindness, and an amazing example of community spirit. Hickam is quick to point out the good, the bad and the ugly in his hometown and it's people.

I would highly recommend this book, and Hickam's other two books Rocket Boys and Torpedo Junction as well as the movie October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhall, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper which was based on Hickam's life. It is a great movie that really captures the feeling of the novels.

As far as how this applies to LOST.....I have no clue. The only correlation I can see is that several of the characters on the show (Jack, Kate, Locke, Sun) have Daddy issues just like Sonny does. Unless rocketry or coal mining show up in the show at some point that father-child relationship is the only relevant issue I can find in the book.


  1. I really enjoyed this book as well. Great review! And you thought you weren't a writer! You did a nice job.

  2. I've not read this one but it sounds lovely. I did see October Sky and I highly recommend it. If the movie is anything like the book, I'm sure it is great.

    As for LOST connections, my guesses are the same as yours except that I might add "obsession" to the mix. From what I can tell in your review, Hickam was obsessed with rockets - this could mirror many characters obsession with the island.

    The book appears in the episode where the Dharma station is attacked by the Hostiles. It is in the classroom where Ben it. I wonder, since the books deals with the fact that Hickam was something of an outcast as a child, if this relates to Ben's status with the other kids in his class?

    And as a completely off the wall thought, I read an interesting comment ... not sure if that is important or not.