Written by Homer Hickam about his childhood growing up in a small mining town during the days of the early space race, "Rocket Boys," also called "October Sky," is in many ways a symbol of the entire space race. The story of young boys, who no one expects to succeed, pushing past their limitations and finding out that if you work hard enough you really can achieve your dreams. Beyond that, this book is filled with symbols of growing up, small town life and many other larger events of the world including politics and even war. It is important to understand those symbols if you're going to understand the full meaning of the book.
The Symbolism of Rockets
The easiest of the symbols in "October Sky" to recognize is the symbolism of the rockets: they symbolize a number of things, but at their most basic, they mirror the events of the real space program both in the successes and failures, with the boy's learning from both. In addition, though just like the real space program, they understand the value of failure, but those watching them do not. This is a story of children playing out their dreams in part because of fear of the future and in part because they simply feel that it is important.
The other symbol of the rocket is just as important and that is of escape. As the story advances, it becomes clearer to Sonny that he cannot stay in the town of Coalwood. Even if that was what he wanted, the mine will not exist forever. This is even more vital for the other boys because while Sonny has a family that can help pay for his college, the other boys do not and hope that winning the national science fair will help them get scholarships and escape Coalwood. So in this way, the rockets are not only a means to an end, but a symbol of that end as well.
The Coalwood Mine
The other major symbol throughout the entire story is the mine. If the rockets are the symbol for escaping, then the mine is the symbol for what it is he needs to escape. In the third chapter of the book, the author writes “The Tipple loomed before me like a giant black spider. According to Mom, Dad thought all I was good for was working there as a clerk." This shows the mine as what it is, not only a trap, but a very dangerous trap. Yet it is no easier for him to escape that mine than it is for their rockets to escape the earth. This is because each time he succeeds at showing that there is more to who he is than people thought, his father simply changes his ideas of what position he will hold in the mine. Eventually, his father even sees him as an engineer helping to run the mine, but to Sonny, the mine remains that which is holding him down.
Visiting the mine for the first time is also very symbolic. It shows his father reaching out to him and trying to bring him into his world, but also symbolizes something else. Visiting the mine is in many ways like visiting another world for Sonny. It is a place that he had never been allowed and had not been able to reach before. It is dangerous, strange, forbidden and a place that most people will never achieve, which is in many ways like space exploration. Even the helmet and uniform of the miners can be compared to a space suit.
The very first line of the story of "October Sky" reads “Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives." This idea of war really is the symbol of almost the entire book. A cold war in the beginning with only his parents, but by the end of the book, this war is far more real with the mining strike itself becoming part of the symbol of the battle over Sonny and by the end even gunshots are fired over this war.
Beyond that, Coalwood represents in some ways the entire earth, especially to Sonny. His desire to build rockets is part of an understanding that remaining there is too dangerous, but eventually he also comes to understand that no matter where he goes or what he becomes, that place will be part of him and he will never fully escape that no matter how many rockets he builds. This understanding is also part of the space program that Sonny wants to join.
The Science Fair
For much of the story of "October Sky," this is a very small story about a small town; but by the end of the story, his story has began to expand. He has begun to be able to see something bigger. The most dramatic of these is as he reaches the national science fair and discovers just how much bigger the world is. This is most clear by understanding just how much more so many of these projects have. They have money and support far beyond anything he could imagine. This represents the situation he will find throughout his entire life. He is going to have to work harder than the other people in order to succeed because he is from a small, poor, mining town, yet it is also the strength of that town that makes his success possible because it has taught him lessons that are just as important as the support the others have, and perhaps more important.
Wernher Von Braun
Wernher Von Braun is the hero of the rocket boys, and most clearly of Sonny. He represents the possibilities of what they want to become. The idea that they really can reach their goals and become who they want. That Sonny is unable to meet him at the end of the story helps to represent that idea that even though he has achieved his goal, he has not reached the end, as well as keeping him a symbol rather than a real person.
For Sonny’s father and others, he also represents something else. Wernher Von Braun is a flawed hero at best, and for Sonny's father, he represents an enemy that he can never really compete against for his son's affection as the man pulls his son away from him by becoming a hero. In addition, for others he represents the hope that perhaps people really can change. This is shown when Sonny is sent to a Jewish family who he knows to find out what they think of Wernher Von Braun and they carefully point out that people can change. This mix of someone who is so flawed and yet can become Sonny’s hero shows the power of Sonny’s dreams as well and represents the goal far more than a concept really could and even the hope that Sonny has that perhaps his father may change.
In many ways, the entire story of "October Sky" is that of symbolism. This is a young boy in a small town, but it is also the story of something far bigger. The dreams of the space race, the hope that we can achieve more, not only as people but as a species. The slow understanding that the reason we do great things is because they are hard and the difficulties everyone faces growing up all appear in this book. This means that anyone who reads this will likely find far more symbols and ideas.
- Hickam, Homer. October Sky. Random House Digital, 1999, https://books.google.com/books/about/October_Sky.html?id=vIUYaiNRg8UC
- Image Credit: Wernher von Braun by NASA under Public Domain