Don Noble
3:57 pm
Mon September 22, 2003

The Keeper's Son

German submarines sank over 400 merchant vessels and some warships before the United States got convoys organized and protected and began to bring to bear the technologies of radar, sonar, air patrols, coastal blackouts, and all the rest.

The Keeper's Son

Homer Hickam is not a household name in Alabama, but he should be: he has lived for decades in Huntsville. He has now retired from NASA and dedicates all his time to writing. Hickam gained national recognition in 1998 with the publication of his memoir, The Rocket Boys, which rose to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

In this memoir of growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia, Hickam tells his own family's story, his father's passion for coal mining, Homer's conviction that Dad, and everyone else, like his football star older brother better, the tensions between Homer's mother and father, Homer's touching and clumsy crushes on Coalwood girls, but mainly, of course, his passion for rockets.

After the trauma of Sputnik, Homer Hickam decided that all Americans should help out with the space race, so he and a few buddies?high school class of 1960?became the rocket boys, with extraordinary success. They experimented and were finally launching rockets that went up over a mile, and won a first prize at the national science fair. This memoir was made by Hollywood into the very pleasing movie October Sky.

Hickam followed this volume of memoir with two more, The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone, and even there has only brought the story up to 1962. Throughout his career, however, Hickam has also written impersonal nonfiction and several novels.

In 1989 he published Torpedo Junction about the German U-Boat operations off the Outer Banks in North Carolina and now, this very week, he is releasing his new novel, also based on the almost-forgotten naval battles off our eastern coast in December of 1941 and in the first few months of 1942.

German submarines sank over 400 merchant vessels and some warships before the United States got convoys organized and protected and began to bring to bear the technologies of radar, sonar, air patrols, coastal blackouts, and all the rest.

The Keeper's Son is a fictionalized treatment of that six-month naval battle, but in this novel, the characters are real people, not the automatons of a lesser writer like Tom Clancy. Hickam has created a group of eccentrics who live on the fictional Killakeet Island.

There is old Doc with his mysterious past; Dossie, who is recovering from her promiscuous past; Willow, who is a kind of beautiful dune wraith; Jack Thurlow, the lighthouse keeper; and his son Josh Thurlow, the captain of the locally based 85-foot Coast Guard cutter, the Maudie Jane, who lost his two-year-old brother at sea in 1924. Jacob's little boat drifted off. It's a long story.

Anyway, in this novel, Josh is still looking for Jacob, Dossie is not looking for love, but there it is, and after December 7th everyone is looking for German submarines. In The Keeper's Son, even the Germans most of them, are human beings, more professional sailors than Nazi nuts, and this story, besides being a love story, is part adventure yarn, part WWII naval history lesson, filled with descriptions of the outer Banks which make you want to go there at once, and descriptions of the natives there that make you want to know them.

Hickam can really tell a story and while he has not aimed to write literary fiction here, he has in fact written highly readable, entertaining fiction. I was actually happy to be told in an afterword that this book is the first in a series of novels which will take Josh and Dossie and the oddball crew of the cutter Maudie Jane through much more of the Second World War in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Homer Hickam will be the featured speaker at the second annual Gala Dinner sponsored by the Alabama Center for the Book, in Montgomery this Friday, September 26, at 7 p.m.

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