The importance of friendship is a recurring theme throughout Homer Hickam’s 1998 memoir of growing up in the coal mines of West Virginia with dreams of a future as a rocket scientist. “Rocket Boys” is plural for a reason: Hickam relates the importance to his childhood and to his efforts at building a working rocket of a small core of close friends. Early in his life, entering elementary school, he relates the joy he felt at being surrounded by so many new friends, while emphasizing the value to him of the boys with which he was already friends:
“In the fall of 1957, after nine years of classes in the Coalwood School, I went across the mountains to Big Creek, the district high school, for the tenth through the twelfth grade. . . .I liked high school right oʃf. There were kids there from all the little towns in the district, and I started making lots of new friends, although my core group remained my buddies from Coalwood: Roy Lee, Sherman, and O’Dell.”
The importance of friendships for Homer grew with his maturation and recognition that, as the son of the mine supervisor who was consequently on adversarial terms with the local mine’s union representatives, his metaphorical survival could only be assured by the close bonds he shared with that small group of friends:
“I was grateful to have Roy Lee, Sherman, and O’Dell as friends. When I entered the fɹrst grade, I found myself in a community of boys from all over the town, and it became apparent that, as my father’s son, I was marked by his position . . . For some reason, Roy Lee, Sherman, and O’Dell never seemed to mind who my dad was. As far as they were concerned, we were all just Coalwood kids together.”
Hickam portrays himself as a particularly sensitive boy who valued his friendships and the emotional support they provided. His affection and desires for a romantic relationship with Dorothy is continuously frustrated by his own shyness towards her, finally confiding in another female in whom he had no romantic interest, Emily Sue, of his interest in Dorothy:
“ . . . to me, Emily Sue was what I came to think of as a forever friend, somebody I could tell the truth to without fear of reproach. I just instinctively knew that about her. She also seemed to possess a wisdom far beyond our years.”
Again, Homer emphasizes the importance of friendships in his life. Prior to this last passage regarding Emily Sue, however, his unrequited love for Dorothy results in his introduction to the negative aspect of friendship. Homer recognizes that his romantic interest in Dorothy is not reciprocated during the following exchange:
"She seemed to enjoy my company, and it wasn’t her fault, after all, that I was in love with her. One Sunday, she stopped studying and looked across the cofʃee table at me. “Oh, Sonny, I’m so glad we’re such good friends!” she gushed.
“Me too, Dorothy,” I answered, lying. Never had friend been such an awful word.”
It is Emily Sue, again, who emphasizes the importance of friendships. Homer’s jealously of his football-hero brother and the girls attracted to him, but Emily Sue points out the hollowness of his brother’s life: “He’s a big man on campus, but he doesn’t really have any friends.”
During an emotionally difficult time, the importance of friends to Homer is brought home again as he contemplates the fact that “Rock and roll and being surrounded by my classmates and friends were good medicine."