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Review: 'Sky of Stone' engaging Hickam memoir

"Sky of Stone"
By Homer Hickam
336 pages

By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- In a small town, where everyone seems to know everyone else's business, secrets are precious commodities. They are hard-won and closely held. Of course, since everyone knows everyone else's business, a secret is only a secret if it is the whole town's. And Coalwood, West Virginia, had a secret.

"Sky of Stone," Homer Hickam's third memoir about growing up in Coalwood, recounts an eventful summer in the life of the town and of the author. "Sonny" Hickam has completed his first year of college and returns -- reluctantly -- to his hometown. There's been an accident in the mine that is the center of Coalwood life. His father, the mine superintendent, is under a cloud of suspicion. Sonny's mother, who is spending the summer at Myrtle Beach, wants her younger son on hand to lend his father moral support.

The problem is Sonny and his father barely speak to each other. The elder Hickam rebuffs his son's offers of assistance and goes about his business, ignoring the accident investigation that could cost him his job.

That leaves Sonny alone in a house haunted with memories, in a town that no longer treats him as one of its own. For a teenager with a rebellious streak, that's a fateful combination of circumstances.

An education in the mine

He wrecks his dad's Buick and is forced to take a job in the mine to pay for the damage. Unlike the young Homer in the movie "October Sky," based on Hickam's first Coalwood memoir, the real-life Sonny had never worked in the mine before that summer.

Homer Hickam
Homer Hickam  

It proves to be an education, the type he could never get in college. He learns about hard work, the nuts and bolts of coal mining, and women. Well, one woman, a female junior engineer assigned to the mine.

What he doesn't learn, however, is what really happened the night of the accident that left one of his father's best miners dead. As Sonny tries to puzzle out the mystery, he meets a wall of resistance from everyone else in town. Coalwood doesn't give up its secrets easily.

Clear-eyed memories

Like the earlier memoirs of Coalwood, "Sky of Stone" is deeply rooted in place and time. Hickam's memories of the town are clear-eyed, for better and for worse. His prose is as sharp as the jagged horizons of West Virginia. He can wax poetic about the mountains that surround the town even as he chronicles the insular nature of the people who populate it.

"Some years back," he writes, "the Bassos had adopted a boy, the only adopted child, as far as I knew, who lived in Coalwood. It had prompted a lot of gossip across the fence-line as to why it had been necessary for them to go to an orphanage for a child. Mom said Cleo Mallett had been the one who'd started tongues wagging about it, and that she might've served Coalwood better had she visited the orphanage for her own children, too. Since her boys tended to beat me up, I agreed."

Events tumble toward a climactic showdown between Hickam's father and the operators of the mine. Secrets are finally revealed, changing the town and Sonny's family forever.

"Sky of Stone" is no idyllic puff of nostalgia. It's an engaging story of a small town where life is hard and the lessons it teaches are harder still.


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