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Homer Hickam visits WV Book Festival to talk new book on family legend

Photo courtesy of Linda Terry Hickam
Homer Hickam, West Virginia native and author of New York Times bestseller “Rocket Boys,” will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Charleston Civic Center.
Homer Hickam’s newest book “Carrying Albert Home” was released on Oct. 13.

Homer Hickam remembers one day watching TV particularly well.

He was a boy, 12, and absorbed in “Davey Crockett” when his mom, Elsie, walked in the room. There was Buddy Ebsen, playing Crockett’s friend George Russell, on the screen.

“Oh I know him,” she said and then turned and walked out. He followed after her, seeking answers.

“He’s the one that gave me Albert,” she said.

“Who’s Albert?”

The explanation that followed — forming the framework for a Hickam family legend — creates the storyline for Hickam’s newest book, “Carrying Albert Home.” The book hit stands Oct. 13. Hickam will share more about the novel at the West Virginia Book Festival on Friday and Saturday at the Charleston Civic Center. He’ll be speaking at 9 a.m. Saturday.

“This book is a story of the eternal triangle. Homer loves Elsie. Elsie loves Albert. The difference, though, is that Albert happens to be an alligator. It is a family legend of my parents before they were my parents,” Hickam shared with the Gazette-Mail during a recent phone interview.

Before Elsie and Homer Sr. were his parents, they graduated from Gary High School in Gary, West Virginia. Homer asked Elise to marry him. Elsie told him “heck no” and moved to Florida to live with her uncle.

There, while working in a diner and putting herself through secretary school, she met Buddy Ebsen — long before the days that he would play Jed Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies” or act in the classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

The two — Elsie and Ebsen — fell in love. Hickam said it was highly likely that they would get married.

But when Ebsen got the call to pursue a career in New York, he went. And he left Elsie behind. Eventually, she found her way back to West Virginia and married the man who had always loved her, Homer.

The news of their wedlock made it to Ebsen, and he sent a gift. It came from Florida, meant to remind Elsie of their love. She named him Albert. Albert was a baby alligator.

Albert lived in their house. Homer wasn’t a fan. He was scared of the animal, Hickam said.

Albert just kept growing bigger and bigger. One day, he chased Homer out into the yard. Homer screamed, “All right, Elsie. It’s either me or this alligator,” Hickam shared.

Homer’s ultimatum took her a few days to ponder, but eventually Elsie chose her husband. But first, she insisted, Albert had to return to Florida.

And so it began, Elsie and Homer’s 1,000-mile journey from West Virginia to Florida to carry Albert home.

“I like to say ‘Carrying Albert Home’ is all true, except for the parts that aren’t, and they are true, too,” Hickam said. “The reason for that is because people tell family legends for a reason.”

Hickam said a major reason he wanted to tell this story is because of his parents’ inaccurate portrayal in the 1999 film “October Sky,” which was based on his New York Times bestselling memoir “Rocket Boys.”

“When ‘October Sky’ came out, I had a lot of issues with that movie — mostly having to do with my parents,” he said. “It shows my dad as being this dour, mean kind of fellow that dominated everything. And my mom was kind of shown as a whip. Nothing could have been further from the truth on either one.”

In real life, their marriage still had its strife, Homer said, but their personalities were much different from the ones portrayed. Elsie was a very independent woman. She had ambition to do many things and didn’t want to live in Coalwood. Homer loved Elsie, but he also didn’t want to leave his home in West Virginia and job in the coal mine.

His parents couldn’t agree on much. His mom expressed to his father almost daily how unhappy she was in Coalwood, Hickam said.

“And yet they loved each other,” he said.

Like the portrayal of his parents in “October Sky,” Hickam said he’s tried to overcome the film’s portrayal of himself as a NASA rocket scientist.

Yes, he did work for NASA to help train astronauts, but he said at his core he’s always been a writer. He pointed out that his first book, “Torpedo Junction,” was published almost a decade before “Rocket Boys.”

“‘October Sky’ really did me in by not mentioning that I’m an author, but just calling me a NASA rocket scientist, because I never was,” the writer said.

He said he’s hopeful that “Carrying Albert Home” can help to get him out from under that misconception.

Hickam acknowledges that it’s a problem many writers would like to have, and also recognizes that striving to recreate the success from his memoir “Rocket Boys” might be too elusive.

“‘Rocket Boys’ is my classic. … A writer only has one classic in him normally,” he explained.

To illustrate his point, he shared a story of when he met Harper Lee, the famous American novelist, who until this year, had only released one book — her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Hickam was in Lee’s hometown in Alabama to collect a writer’s award. She rarely came out to meet the writers, but she came out to meet him.

She walked directly up to him and said, “Tell me you’ve written a classic.” He responded, “Yes ma’am.”

“Well you realize,” she told him, “your readers will never forgive you for it.”

And then she turned and walked away.

Reach Anna Patrick at anna.patrick@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4881.

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