Hickam’s 1950s West Virginian coal-town story (Rocket Boys, 1998) continues: a polished memoir of a roughhewn place seen through his eyes as a perceptive, questing teenager.
Not exactly Versailles to begin with, Coalwood slid into outright misery when Hickam was a boy. Once a benign company town—prosperous, safe, paternal—it was sold to a steel conglomerate not long after the miners formed a union. A kind of winter of the soul then descended upon Coalwood, which was now just another item on the ledger that had to show a profit. Suddenly, the miners had to buy their houses (or get out), forget about medical treatments, increase their production (with no expansion of manpower), and underwrite all town activities themselves. Of course, as the author explains, these had been the very ties that bound Coalwood together. For the first time, hunger came to town, and Hickam’s father, the mine superintendent, felt each new insult from the steel company as a blow to the solar plexus. Unlike the author’s earlier memoir, which centered on the rocket club he belonged to and mined the rocket metaphor as relentlessly as the town dug coal, this one is more diffuse. A number of strains play themselves out against the background malaise: the mother’s desire to flee Coalwood, the little cruelties of small-town life balanced by little acts of kindness, the gamble taken in reopening a jinxed shaft, and the author’s hurtful relationship with his father (a distant, careworn, black-lunged character). Hickam overdoes the youthful rustic pose, and home truths clog the airwaves (“I’m sorry you got troubles, Sonny, but that’s called life”). But in its quiet, sentimental, coming-of-age way, Hickam’s story is involving, and he paints a nice landscape: “Coalwood’s houses were jammed between steep, humpbacked mountains packed so close together a boy with a good arm could throw a rock from one hill to the other.” And the ending—a happy one, all around—couldn’t be too sweet for Coalwood’s deserving townsfolk.
A moving saga that (just) steers clear of the nostalgic swamp most hometown memoirs sink into.