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Red Helmet

By: Homer Hickam
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
Thomas Nelson, 2007
$24.99, Hardcover

As I moaned and groaned my way through the first chapter of New York Times #1 best-selling author Homer Hickam’s latest novel Red Helmet, I wondered what I’d committed myself to read. The book opens with a pair of lovers on the island of St. John, pledging everlasting devotion to one another. Before chapter’s end, they marry on the island as they whisper sweetly to one another, madly in love. Jeez. . .

But by Chapter Three, Hickam lured me in like a devoted catfish waiting again to devour Hickam’s fascinating stories that I’ve enjoyed for years. He reels off hilarious touches of humor as the newlyweds’ passions give way to realizations that they have an immense cultural gap between them.

Cable Jordan is superintendent of a West Virginia coal mine. The woman he married in the tropics after a six-month courtship is Song Hawkins, daughter of one of the richest men in America. While Cable is devoted to life in West Virginia coal country (his father had been killed in the mines), his new wife reluctantly agrees to give Appalachia one week to determine if it might substitute for her fast-paced New York City lifestyle.

Hickam, a Huntsville resident, spent his career as an engineer with NASA before writing The Rocket Boys, a best-selling novel based on his life as a child in West Virginia and later made into the movie October Sky. His father was a coal miner, and Hickam knows that of which he writes. Red Helmet offers a fascinating peek into the world of coal mining; it’s an education in mining processes, equipment, rules and regulations, and miner slang.

While Hickam’s last work was an historical adventure novel set in World War II in the Pacific, this time Hickam depends more on humor as he paints an Appalachian setting that is simple yet rife with backstabbing, crime, murder, and outside corporate meddling.

Song is a sophisticated New York woman who is worshipped in the financial world, a woman initially hesitant to step down into the word of coal miners. Professionally, she is a wizard at acquiring properties and turning them into profitable ventures for her father’s empire. She has made the cover of Fortune magazine repeatedly.

Hickam’s portrayals of Song as she tries to adjust to culture shock are hilarious. She has to let a twelve-year-old drive her husband’s Porsche to his office because she has no clue how to shift gears while driving (she is used to limousines and automatic transmissions). The kid wrecks, and Song ends up cut and bruised in a pasture where she sits on a cow patty that she thinks is nature’s furniture. Stinking of cow manure, she unwittingly barges into her husband’s corporate meeting to seduce him. There she finds her husband’s ex-lover, the voluptuous governor of West Virginia.

Among the surreal, hilarious scenes, Song Hawkins flees Appalachia for New York City to attend a swanky dinner party for the rich and famous. And of course, the West Virginia governor who once dated Song’s husband Cable is present. At the party, a novelist and social acquaintance of Song, Kitty Franks, represents author Hickam’s sly, irreverent humor.

With Red Helmet, Homer Hickam remains a master at detailing contradictions.

Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.

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