Hickam’s third installment in his bestselling memoir (The Coalwood Way, 2000, etc.) about coal country West Virginia is, pleasingly, more leathery than the sentimental earlier material as he attains his college years and must return to Coalwood under difficult circumstances.
Hickam has gone off to Virginia Polytech to pursue his dreams of rocket science but is required to return to Coalwood, his hometown that lived and, unfortunately, breathed coal. It is only for the summer, but Hickman’s none too happy to be back in Coalwood, despite his obvious affection for the place. His father is under a cloud for a deadly mining mishap; his mother has moved down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in what looks like a potential marital split; and Hickam must take a job in the mines to pay for an auto accident, which means he must join the union, to his parents’ horror. His father pretty much turns him out, but there are bright lines to the story as well: a track-laying contest, a girl named Rita, and the story behind his father’s reticence in talking about the night of the accident that killed his friend. Hickam’s dulcet voice is a soothing counterpoint to the familial and social woes of Coalwood, paternalistic company town or not, and despite the steel bosses and the secrets of the tight-knit town and the brutality of life in the mine—something made very real here by Hickam’s being right down there—the tale unfolds like a bedtime story. That things turn out for the best makes this an appealing capstone. Hickam ends with a short chapter on his life after leaving Coalwood that is way too rushed—how jarring “Pleiku” and “Dak To” sound in this context, or learning that Hickam worked only at the fringes of rocket science.
This concluding volume has the feel of literary durability about it, even more than the much-ballyhooed Rocket Boys (1998).