A loving tribute to small-town life
It's tempting to cast Homer Hickam as a rags-to-riches, self-made man. The son of a coal mine supervisor, he was raised in a rural West Virginia town with limited access to public education's most up-to-date resources. When, as a child, he experimented with designing and launching rockets (well before man had walked on the moon), he went up against the traditions of a community that had little use for original behavior. Inauspicious beginnings perhaps, but as an adult, Homer Hickam became an engineer for NASA and a best-selling writer.
So it would have been easy for him to paint himself as an undiscovered diamond in an unforgiving coal town. But that's not the tenor of Sky of Stone, in which Hickam re-creates the events of a long-ago summer spent in his hometown of Coalwood following his freshman year in college.
Sky of Stone is a follow-up to Hickam's two previous memoirs, Rocket Boys (which was made into the movie October Sky) and The Coalwood Way. In all three books, the author commemorates his hometown and its citizens with loving admiration. Homer's parents, though imperfect, are remembered for their humor, dedication and ingenuity. The author gives them full credit for insisting that he go to college and pursue his dreams.
More surprisingly, Hickam portrays Coalwood not as a soul- and lung-destroying wasteland, but as the embodiment of the American dream. Coalwood's fine schools, decent houses and well-nourished families are sustained by the production of coal. That's what the town's mining families believed, and Hickam honors their strong sense of self-determination.
The dark side to the coal industry black lung, union quarrels, unequal opportunity for women rears its head in Hickam's reminiscences, as they did in Coalwood in 1961. But they are not the subject of Sky of Stone. Hickam focuses on three young people Bobby Likens, Rita Walicki and himself for whom Coalwood's resistance to change acted as a bracing stimulant, calling forth all of the trio's shrewdness and creativity. They were made by Coalwood, not in spite of it.
The book's various plot strands the estrangement of Hickam's parents; the charges brought against his father involving the death of a mining foreman occasionally seem unconnected. But the author brings them all together in a final courtroom drama. Hickam's skill with plot, his wit and his capacity for summing up a character in a couple of good quotes all make Sky of Stone an admirable entry in the chronicles of his life.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.