"Rocket Boys" by Homer Hickam, also called "October Sky," is the story of a young boy growing up Coalwood, a West Virginia mining town. Filled with interesting characters, ideas and life lessons, it also has a lot of excellent quotes which encapsulate both the themes and ideas of the book as well as the tone of the time that the book was written in. So, while these quotes are not as powerful without the rest of the story, they can help a person hold onto the ideas in the book better.
Quotes About the Town of Coalwood
The first line is perhaps the most important "October Sky" book quote to help the reader understand one of the most significant themes of the book and the town of Coalwood.
“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 that there are two competing goals for Sonny’s life is vital to this entire story. His mother insists that he will leave the town and not work in the coal mine while his father expects that he will be a clerk, or perhaps if he works very hard, an engineer for the mine. Yet it is not only his parents who are having this battle.
Another of the vital explanations of Coalwood comes in the second chapter. An understanding of how people not only in Coalwood but in many other places prioritize children, education and even life. This is also vital because it indirectly shows where Sonny sees his own importance.
“Only coal mining was more important in Coalwood than high-school football. Sputnik, and anything else, was going to always come in a distant third.”
The culmination of the story of Coalwood comes in the last chapter. Sonny has won an award at the national science fair and returned home to discover the town has changed, at least a little. Showing how much effect the dreams of one person can have change everything as well as the ultimate lesson of "Rocket Boys."
“In all its history, I think it was Coalwood's best moment, even though my dad lost to the union, and my mom was forced to stay a little longer in the hills. Jake had it right. There's a plan. If you're willing to fight it hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but you're still going to end up wherever God wants you to be.”
Quotes on The Mine
One of the cores of this story is the Coalwood mine. The mine represents a life of accepting limitations and is a dangerous trap that Sonny has to fight to escape. Perhaps nothing more clearly shows that than the line from the third chapter of "October Sky."
“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.”
Separating the mine from the town is almost impossible and few quotes spell that out better than in the fourth chapter where Sonny writes:
“Twenty-five men were cut off from the company. The phrase was apt. Not only were the men separated from their work, they were cut off from their homes, credit at the company stores, and identification as a Coalwood citizen. The miners cut off were required to leave their houses within two weeks.”
In chapter 11, Sonny is taken to the mine by his father. This gives the only first hand view of the mine in the entire story. A mix of adventure and danger is captured in the quote.
“Solid gray walls surrounded us. I felt almost as if I were on some alien planet. All the things I'd ever known that oriented me — trees, the sky, the mountains — none of them was around. The air even smelled different, like wet gunpowder."
Quotes on Education
While the book of "October Sky" is about growing up and escaping the limitations put on you, it is the way that Sonny overcomes the gravitational pull of Coalwood that is so vital. The view of education and the change in the way that he sees it is vital to this story and perhaps no "October Sky" book quote is so important as that said by his science teacher in the 13th chapter when she gives him the book on rocketry he has been desperately trying to find.
“All I've done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what's inside it.”
The other major drive for better education in this story is that of Sputnik. The question of how the Russians got ahead of the US falls to the education system. Sonny’s thoughts on it appear in the second chapter.
“While I listened to the beeping, I had this mental image of Russian high-school kids lifting the Sputnik and putting it in place on top of a big, sleek rocket. I envied them and wondered how it was they were so smart.”
Sonny is not the only one who recognizes the need for education though. The student council of his high school also weighs in on the subject in that same chapter.
“The Big Creek Student Council today has responded to, and I quote, the 'threat of Sputnik' by passing a resolution — I have it in my hand now — that dedicates the remainder of the school year to academic excellence. I approve the council's resolution. That is all."
It takes longer for the adults to weigh in on the subject as they are the ones who have to make substantial changes. Still, they do weigh in during the eighth chapter.
“Mr. Turner had more to say. Big Creek was to be restructured, he said, beginning with the junior class. A more challenging academic curriculum was to be installed, the result of Sputnik and the worry over how badly educated America's children were compared to Russian kids. Mr. Turner gripped the lectern and looked down on us. ‘There will be no more easy classes at this school,’ he announced.”
Quotes on Dreams
The power of dreams and the path to achieve them is one of the most important of the themes to "October Sky." These start not with Sonny’s dream though, but with the dream his mother has for him in the third chapter of "October Sky."
"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?"
As the story advances, Sonny begins to see his own dreams more clearly. Yet as he learns about where he might be able to go, he begins to lose track of where he is. In the ninth chapter this becomes clear.
“I went back to the telescope and tried to use it to look at Coalwood, but discovered I couldn't focus it close enough. I thought how ironic it was that Jake's telescope could see stars a million light-years away, but not the town it was in. Maybe I was that way myself. I had a clear vision of my future in space, but the life I led in Coalwood sometimes seemed to blur."
Simply having the dreams for Sonny isn’t enough though. No one is going to give him his dreams and he begins to understand that by the 10th chapter he sees the path he is going to have to take.
“We had flown the little spacecraft beyond its physical capabilities, zipped past jagged mountains and over the gouges and tears of primordial bombardment, admired all the moon's craters, its mares and its mountains. Someday, I was convinced, we would go there. Not just mankind, but us, the boys on that roof. If only we could learn enough and were brave enough. That's why I decided, up there on that roof, that we would melt saltpeter and sugar.”
One of the very last quotes in the last chapter of October Sky is Sonny speaking to his father. This applies to many things, but it is also clear that he is talking at least in part about the boy’s dreams as he gives his father the chance to do with the rocket what he was never willing to do with his son, which is light the fuse to allow it to fly.
"A rocket won't fly unless somebody lights the fuse."
- Hickam, Homer. October Sky. Random House Digital, 1999, https://books.google.com/books/about/October_Sky.html?id=vIUYaiNRg8UCH
- Image Credit: H3photo3 by Homer Hickam under Public Domain