Delacorte, 2001
ISBN: 0-385-33522-9

Since September 11, the trendy-ironic-cynical-hapless and all-too-often irritating fluff produced by so many of today’s 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 haven’t been there, haven’t done that, and wouldn’t 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 lives.
        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 one’s 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. Hickam’s alter-ego’s 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. Hickam’s Sky of Stone is not a fiction, nor the ‘Memoir’ churlish publishers insist upon declaring on the book’s 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. Hickam’s trilogy of “Coalwood” books. Here, the author’s 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. Hickam’s 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 project—to say the least, an uncommon deed for a coalminer’s son.) Far from being self-absorbed, however, Mr. Hickam seems almost eager to dissolve his youthful missteps on paper.
         Homer’s potential for a relationship with his father is rapidly deteriorating as dark questions swirl about the elder Hickam’s deeds as mine foreman. Is he guilty of negligence in the death of a company employee? Does he put productivity ahead of safety? While Homer’s 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 Homer’s father cuts him off from his college fund, the headstrong young man joins the union and takes a job laying track in the mine—an 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 grey stillness.
         On his book tour, Mr. Hickam has sought to give Coalwood a voice:
         “We are proud of who we are.
         “We stand up for what we believe.
         “We are 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.
         The literary 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 escapism—escapism, 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 sibling.