Homer Hickam's memoir October Sky takes place in his hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia. Coalwood is an extremely small town, with only about 2,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the novel, that serves as a company town for the nearby mine.
Company towns were common establishments in rural America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which all of the businesses and housing in a small town are owned by one company that also provides the main source of income and employment for the town residents, such as a mill, mine, or factory.
As a company town, Coalwood is owned by the mining company for the Coalwood mine. The mine is a central part of the residents' life:
Like everybody else in Coalwood, I lived according to the rhythms set by the shifts. I was awakened in the morning by the tromp of feet and the clunking of lunch buckets outside as the day shift went to work, 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 hoot-owl shift.
Living in a company town means living and breathing industry, as we see in Homer's life throughout his memoir.
It is also generally expected that people who grow up in company towns will stay in the town and become an employee of the local industry, just like Homer's father and grandfather who both worked in the mine their whole lives, only stopping due to injury or severe illness. So, Homer's desires to be a rocket scientist are not always taken seriously and seen as a pipe dream. Parents in Coalwood want their children to escape from the cycle of hard labor that they are subjected to, but at the same time, escape seems nearly impossible. In this way, the setting of Homer's memoir significantly impacts the main conflicts and story of his life.