September 11, the trendy-ironic-cynical-hapless and all-too-often
irritating fluff produced by so many of todays writers has
been subjected to the harsh light of reality. What was pleasantly
inane is now revealed as so many bungled pronouncements from people
who havent been there, havent done that, and wouldnt
know what train to catch if they wanted to try. Suddenly, the
world is level. Where factious critics once bellowed about their
catch of the day, we are now comfortable to interpret value according
to personal and unshared compulsions. The criticasters still howl,
of course, and perhaps some uncertain souls will listen. But in
great measure we have been made aware of what is real and is not;
we have been given the tools necessary to identify counterfeit
Because of that
new awareness, it is immediately obvious that Sky of Stone
is told by an author whose loyalty lies with his duty as the
voice for an entire way of life. This new novoir is a place in
which to find ones own horizon, a confident book with a
sense of purpose. Our recent history grants the work a perfect
backdrop against which to sketch the painfully self-conscious
and ultimately endearing false-starts that mark Mr. Hickams
alter-egos march into adulthood.
Homer Hickam succeeds
in creating an authentic world filled with authentic people. He
does not pass out Good and Evil archetypes and foils. Instead,
Mr. Hickam is not embarrassed to enlist in heroes their just flaws.
The young Homer is cheerfully brash, arrogant, fantastically stubborn.
He yearns and struggles. And his sculptor, looking on with the
steady, bemused eye of experience, does not flinch. These characters
are not the latté-swilling artistes of literary fiction,
nor are they people whose grandiose escapades warrant psychological
inspection. Those who are so acutely rendered on paper are drawn
from reality, or generally so. Mr. Hickams Sky of Stone
is not a fiction, nor the Memoir churlish publishers
insist upon declaring on the books jacket. Rather, he pronounces
it a Novoir, belonging to that class of books, that
tell interesting true-life stories about people through the eyes
of the writer but are written first and foremost to intrigue readers,
to get them to turn the first page and then the next and the next
until the very end.
Sky of Stone is
the third and (perhaps) final member of Mr. Hickams trilogy
of Coalwood books. Here, the authors hand is
incisive as he tells of his reluctance to return to the company
town of Coalwood, West Virginia after finishing his first year
at Virginia Tech. (Those familiar with either of Mr. Hickams
precedent novoirs or the movie adaptation October Sky
know that Homer earned his seat at Tech by winning the National
Science Fair with a rocketry projectto say the least, an
uncommon deed for a coalminers son.) Far from being self-absorbed,
however, Mr. Hickam seems almost eager to dissolve his youthful
missteps on paper.
potential for a relationship with his father is rapidly deteriorating
as dark questions swirl about the elder Hickams deeds as
mine foreman. Is he guilty of negligence in the death of a company
employee? Does he put productivity ahead of safety? While Homers
mother escapes the afflicted marriage by spending the summer in
Myrtle Beach, the two men play the ages-old tug-of-war between
fathers and sons that is artful in spite of its foreordained outcome.
When in anger Homers father cuts him off from his college
fund, the headstrong young man joins the union and takes a job
laying track in the minean act that could not have been
fiercer if it had demanded blood instead of ink. The story moves
against a fulcrum of personalities: the beautiful and ambitious
female junior engineer determined to make her way in the old boys
club; the prodigal son returned home to haunt the surrogate father;
the invalid whose fate is strangely tied to that of the entire
town. Mr. Hickam unravels the mystery of that summer of 1961 in
Sky of Stone, and it is a credit to his skill as a storyteller
that he succeeds in drawing the scattered threads together into
a fulfilling conclusion. Sky of Stone is driven by motifs
of loyalty, endurance, muted love expressed not in words but in
actions. Common themes, perhaps, but all evidence of an uncommon
moral fiber that makes Coalwood an ideal no less attractive for
its characteristic harshness.
In Sky of
Stone, Mr. Hickam demonstrates a ready skill as a storyteller.
A certain competence as a stylist emerges. His characters are
firm and unsurprising, but they are authentic relations
of a world than has been placed deliberately into the past as
surely as an Appalachian winter muddies shadows into secretive
On his book tour,
Mr. Hickam has sought to give Coalwood a voice:
proud of who we are.
up for what we believe.
not afraid, he says, and he sounds unerringly sincere. Sky
of Stone offers absolutes in a world of questions. Mr. Hickam
demonstrates how everyday people in ordinary situations facing
a time as uncertain as any we will ever know become heroes when
they uphold such simple tenets. In that way, his folk story ripens
into a message of hope.
elite sniff that books that put storytelling above the more academic
pursuits of language and technique smack of peasant escapism.
Sky of Stone is unabashed escapismescapism, that
is, from the realm of recalcitrance to a place of personal responsibility
that is uplifting rather than stultifying.
Sky of Stone
is the rare work that has been birthed in its proper time. Because
Mr. Hickam does not moralize or pontificate, his message is at
once entertaining and thoughtful. Mr. Hickam has realized his
maturity as an author, and at a time when such important reminders
of where we have been inevitably illuminate where we are going.
One cannot help but hope that this trilogy may yet have a fourth