Sixteen-year-old Laker has grown up with his emotionally fragile mother, Audrey, whose new husband gives her a hard time. When Laker loses his temper and knocks his stepfather to the floor, Audrey throws Laker out. He catches the first bus out of town and lives on the street until an 83-year-old widower named Henry offers him room and board in exchange for yard work.
Henry is a bit forgetful, no longer drives and counts his change very slowly in the store, but he’s still on the ball. His arthritis doesn’t prevent him from tearing down a shed. He treats Laker with respect and generosity. Without prying, he encourages Laker to contact Audrey and to enroll in the local high school. Later, he’s quite believably capable of romance even though he still misses and loves his dead wife.
Henry’s daughter, Vera Lynne, cleans his house uninvited and throws out stuff he would rather keep. Her exaggerated sense of responsibility for him weighs her down, and she fiercely insists that his care should be a family matter (none of Laker’s business), or that Henry should go to a “home” even though he doesn’t need to yet. Henry finds her presence oppressive and prefers Laker as a companion and driver. At first, Vera Lynne’s teenage daughter, Charlene, hates Laker as an interloper, but she gradually sheds her mother’s influence and becomes attracted to him.
Then there’s the mysterious figure in Laker’s dreamlike journal entries: a brown-skinned, laughing old woman who took him swimming and berry picking when he was a toddler. Are these dreams or memories? Laker finds out and learns some devastating secrets about his family history.
Like real life, this thoughtful novel leaves many questions unresolved. Henry seems fatalistic about his own declining health, but Laker dreads having to leave him; he has nowhere else to go. Still, most of the characters change in positive directions. Henry plays a crucial role in Laker’s breaking free from a family pattern of violence, just as Laker helps Henry hold on to his independence, dignity and freedom of spirit.