Another book down on the "Reread Heinlein Novels" project. A mere thirteen left to go! Wish me luck. (I think I read this one just once before, probably sixty years ago, out of some library. Remembered quite a bit of it, not everything.)
This is one of Heinlein's juveniles, originally published in 1953. It tells the story of young Max Jones, who has big dreams of interstellar travel, emulating his late uncle, an "astrogator" in charge of delicately setting the course for the big spaceships. But Max is stuck on his family farm in the Ozarks, dealing with his slatternly stepmother and her brand new loutish husband. When things turn physically abusive, Max heads out for the local spaceport on his very long-shot quest. He meets a seeming hobo, Sam, who provides sage advice, and also robs him of his valuable astrogation textbooks.
Max persists, and through a series of unlikely events, winds up on a starship, in one of the lowliest jobs. But in a series of even more unlikely events, his talent is recognized, he and the ship (and a comely maiden) are cast into deadly peril, and… well, it's a great yarn.
The current edition from Baen Books has an intro from Heinlein's biographer, the late William H. Patterson, Jr. He observes that Heinlein's juvenile works are explicitly modeled after the (even older) Horatio Alger stories, of young boys growing up out of hardship, and prevailing by grit and talent. And there's also an Afterword by Michael Z. Williamson, which notes the enduring value of the book. It's not the technical details, which are absurd to modern readers. (For example, the plot hinges on astrogation being a high-stress "priesthood" occupation demanding massive computers, but also detailed and delicate paper computation. Dude, buy a PC.) But it's really a book about growing up, something that never gets old.
I'm glad the book, like all Heinlein's novels, remains in print. But sadly it lacks Clifford Geary's imaginative illustrations I remember from that long-ago library book; instead we get a generic spaceship landed on a barren planetscape on the cover, something that doesn't actually happen in the book. (You can get a taste of the Geary pics here.)