Hickam, Homer 1943–
Hickam, Homer 1943–
(Homer Hadley Hickam, Jr.)
Born February 19, 1943, in Coalwood, WV; son of Homer (a superintendent of a coal mine) and Elsie Hickam; married first wife, 1977 (divorced, 1986); married Linda Terry (an artist, editor, and assistant), 1998. Education: Virginia Polytechnic Institute, B.S., 1964. Hobbies and other interests: Scuba diving.
Writer and aerospace engineer. Thiokol Corporation, staff member, c. 1964-71; U.S. Army Missile Command, Huntsville, AL, and Germany, engineer, 1971-81; National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, aerospace engineer and training manager for astronauts, 1981-98. Military service: U.S. Army, first lieutenant in Vietnam, 1967-68; became captain; received Army Commendation Medal and Bronze Star.
Distinguished Service Award, State of Alabama, 1984; Rocket Boys selected as one of "Great Books of 1998," New York Times; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, best biography, 1998, for Rocket Boys; honored by the State of West Virginia, 1999, for "his support of his home state and his distinguished career as both an engineer and author."
"JOSH THURLOW" SERIES
The Keeper's Son, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2003.
The Ambassador's Son, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2005.
The Far Reaches, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Torpedo Junction: U-boat War off America's East Coast, 1942 (nonfiction), Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD), 1989.
Rocket Boys: A Memoir, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1998, published as October Sky, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Back to the Moon (novel), Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1999.
The Coalwood Way (memoir), Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Sky of Stone (memoir), Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2001.
We Are Not Afraid: Strength and Courage from the Town That Inspired the #1 Bestseller and Award-Winning Movie "October Sky" (nonfiction), Health Communications (Deerfield Beach, FL), 2002.
Rocket Boys: A Memoir was adapted to film as October Sky, directed by Joe Johnston, Universal, 1999.
Homer Hickam was meant to be a coal miner. Born in 1943 in Coalwood, West Virginia, he was raised by a mine supervisor in a town where all the boys followed their fathers into the mines. But when Hickam saw the light of Sputnik in the sky he became obsessed with rockets, and by the time he was a NASA engineer his hometown's coal mine had closed. After graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1964, Hickam served as an Army lieutenant in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He realized his childhood dream and enjoyed a seventeen-year career as an aerospace engineer before retiring to a second career as a novelist. He was divorced from his first wife of nine years in 1986, and remarried artist and assistant Linda Terry in 1998. They met through another of Hickam's passions, scuba diving. Hickam and Terry live near the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Scuba diving also led to Hickam's first book, Torpedo Junction: U-boat War off America's East Coast, 1942. While on a dive off the North Carolina coast he found American ships sunk by torpedoes, and two sunken German U-boats. His book tells how, during World War II, German U-boats sank some 275 American ships. The Germans called North Carolina's Outer Banks "the American shooting gallery" because only one Coast Guard cutter guarded it, the Dione. But merchant captains defied Navy orders and hunted down the submarines. Hickam spent ten years researching Torpedo Junction. He read war logs and diaries, and conducted interviews. Brian Firth wrote in his review for West Coast Review of Books: "Hickam shows what an enormous strategic effect was achieved by a small force of only simple submersibles, devoid of snorkels or any modern refinement."
Rocket Boys: A Memoir began with a story Hickam wrote for Air and Space/Smithsonian magazine in 1995. He expanded the story of the pivotal year in his life into an admittedly embellished memoir told in a nostalgic style reminiscent of Stand by Me. Hickam said his life consists of two phases, before and after the launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on October 5, 1957. He was fourteen years old and living where life revolved around the mining industry. A Smithsonian critic included this quote from Rocket Boys in his review: "I ate supper after Dad saw the evening shift down the shaft, and I went to sleep to the ringing of a hammer on steel and the dry hiss of an arc welder at the little tipple machine shop during the hootowl shift."
Once Sputnik made its launch, he became obsessed with rockets and read all he could. Pioneering rocket scientist Wernher von Braun became his new hero. Hickam and a group of boys formed a rocket club, the Big Creek Missile Agency, and began building rockets. The first launch destroyed his mother's picket fence. After another accident in town, the boys built a rocket center at a dumpsite they called Cape Coalwood, complete with a "blockhouse" and a cement launch pad. They named their rockets for the flightless bird, the Auk. The rocket club suffered the jeers of the townspeople and the taunting of Hickam's older brother Jim and his gang of friends. But the whole town took notice when a launch broke the one-mile barrier. Miners then helped the boys construct parts for the rockets and teachers supplied them with helpful books.
Bruce Watson wrote in Smithsonian: "Hickam's descriptions are striking…. The main narrative, as inspiring as any to come out of the space age, rings like a nine pound hammer on coal." Watson concluded: "His memoir honoring both earthbound miners and their sons who gazed into space is required reading for understanding the American Dream." Reviewing the memoir for the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called it "thoroughly charming" and found most satisfying "its eloquent evocation of a lost time and place." Hickam's book was made into an acclaimed film, October Sky, and Rocket Boys was retitled and published in mass-market format as October Sky, whereupon the book reached the number-one spot on the New York Times best-seller list.
Hickam followed Rocket Boys with the novel titled Back to the Moon. It begins in the year 2002, on Cedar Key, Florida. There, former NASA engineer and recovering widower Jack Medaris and his high-tech company plan to send a rocket to the moon and bring back some of the rare isotope helium-3, which will power a reactor. This will supply enough clean fusion energy to power the earth for centuries. Jack's plans go awry when the rocket is destroyed under suspicious circumstances. He "legally" hijacks the space shuttle Columbia and brings along Penny High Eagle, the stunning Native American celebrity biologist and best-selling author (his regular captain is shot outside the launching pad elevator). She adds a little romance, and a nefarious fossil fuel consortium provides plot twists. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that "Hickam packs his narrative with complicated space program minutiae" and that the story "both enthralls and numbs…. As Hickam's tale heats up, the reader's tenacity pays off, and the rocket ride achieves high velocity." Anita Gates also praised the book in her review for the New York Times Book Review, writing that the story is "about great dreams. Being reminded of them is a little like revisiting the New Frontier."
In the early 2000s Hickam released three follow-up memoirs to Rocket Boys, all recollecting various aspects of his West Virginia upbringing. The Coalwood Way begins where Rocket Boys left off, with a high-school-aged Hickam contemplating the usual sources of teenage angst in addition to growing tension between his parents and difficulties in the mine. Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor remarked that although "lacking the strong theme" of the previous memoir, The Coalwood Way "partakes of a gritty nostalgia that will still entrance Hickam's fans." A critic for Publishers Weekly commented of Hickam: "He brings his American hometown to life with vivid images, appealing characters and considerable literary magic."
In Sky of Stone, Hickam is a college student who returns to Coalwood for a summer to work in the mines, much to his parents' chagrin. Elements of mystery and suspense are introduced as Hickam learns that his father is being investigated for responsibility for the death of a local miner. Chris Barsanti wrote in a review for Book that Sky of Stone is "paced like a novel" and that Hickam "writes characters and situations that seem tailor-made for Hollywood." New York Times Book Review critic Robert Morgan found the book to be "as vivid and alive as that of [Hickam's] first, and the bond with the people of Coalwood just as intense and complex." "This coming-of-age tale," commented School Library Journal contributor Judy McAloon, "celebrates the virtues of community and family without a hint of preachiness, and provides a rousing good story into the bargain." The last of Hickam's Coalwood series, We Are Not Afraid: Strength and Courage from the Town That Inspired the #1 Bestseller and Award-Winning Movie "October Sky," is more of a self-help title, a heartening guide to overcoming fear in the face of adversity.
In addition to his nonfiction titles, Hickam has published a series of novels about a U.S. Coast Guard commander during World War II. In The Keeper's Son, described as "irresistibly romantic" and "certain to seduce armchair sailors" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor, Josh Thurlow is challenged to protect his segment of the North Carolina shoreline from German U-boats even as he remains haunted by the memory of a younger brother long lost at sea. "Hickam deftly crafts a romantic, even melodramatic story, occasionally venturing beyond the limitations of historical factuality but always presenting consistent viewpoints," wrote Booklist reviewer Roland Green. Hickam's follow-up, The Ambassador's Son, is set in the South Pacific as Thurlow accepts a new assignment; he teams up with a naval officer by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (of later presidential fame) to track down a disgraced deserter. The novel was described in Publishers Weekly as "a funny, tightly wrapped tale of wartime action." A third title in the series, The Far Reaches, finds Thurlow still in the South Pacific and saved from near-death by a caravan of natives and a nun, all of whom are on the run from Japanese troops. Hickam, wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "keeps the stakes high and the tension taut in this fast-moving historical."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, November-December, 2001, Chris Barsanti, review of Sky of Stone, p. 66.
Booklist, August, 1998, review of Rocket Boys: A Memoir, p. 1917; August, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Coalwood Way, p. 2070; September 1, 2003, Roland Green, review of The Keeper's Son, p. 6.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1998, review of Rocket Boys, p. 1172; August 1, 2003, review of The Keeper's Son, p. 980.
Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Gregg Sapp, review of Rocket Boys, p. 96.
New York Times, October 1, 1998, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "How Chasing a Star Structured a Boy's Life," p. E9.
New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1998, John R. Gaines, review of Rocket Boys, p. 38; June 27, 1999, Anita Gates, "Space Cadets," p. 19; October 21, 2001, Robert Morgan, review of Sky of Stone, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1998, review of Rocket Boys, p. 377; November 2, 1998, review of audio version of Rocket Boys, p. 34; May 31, 1999, review of Back to the Moon, p. 66; September 18, 2000, review of The Coalwood Way, p. 101; February 7, 2005, review of The Ambassador's Son, p. 41; March 19, 2007, review of The Far Reaches, p. 35.
School Library Journal, Janaury, 2002, Judy McAloon, review of Sky of Stone, p. 172.
Sea Frontiers, January-February, 1990, Charles M. Dugger, Jr., review of Torpedo Junction: U-boat War off America's East Coast, 1942, p. 62.
Smithsonian, March, 1999, Bruce Watson, review of Rocket Boys, p. 142.
West Coast Review of Books, January, 1989, review of Torpedo Junction, p. 81.
Homer Hickam Home Page,http://www.homerhickam.com (September 2, 2007).