After living with various foster families, nine-year-old Gabe is taken to live with his aging Uncle Vernon in West Virginia. The relationship with his mother's gruff and distant older brother, a Vietnam vet, is distant at first, but warms up over time. But after his first day in 6th grade, Gabe comes home to find his uncle dead on the floor.

Uncertain what to do, he does nothing for a day or two, pretending at school that everything is normal. Then the body disappears and cards with cryptic messages appear in the mailbox that indicate that someone is looking out for him. After a time, a dog appears, too, sent by the mysterious correspondent. Gabe continues to attend school, and to visit his close friend, Webber, whose mother extends healing hospitality and discreet concern to him. His English teacher takes a particular interest in Gabe, noticing both his honesty as a writer and the signs that he is carrying an unarticulated burden.

Finally the police apprehend Gabe and question him about the disappearance of his uncle's body. The mysterious correspondent turns out to be Smitty, a wartime companion of his uncle's, who has lived alone, unwilling to disclose his disfiguring facial injury in public, and isolated by the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress. Mr. Boehm, the English teacher, takes Gabe under his wing, arranges for a proper military burial for Uncle Vernon, and helps Gabe make direct contact with Smitty, then offers Gabe a home with him.


This remarkable first novel manages dramatic and highly charged material--childhood abandonment, war trauma, sudden death, and unresolved grief--with delicacy and remarkable deftness. All the characters are convincing; even Gabe's gutsy (though ill-advised) determination to hide the facts of his uncle's death and endure isolation and secrecy seem plausible acts of a somewhat desperate, but ordinary, boy, devising survival strategies that have their own logic. The adults who intervene, including a sympathetic social worker, act not simply as rescuers, but as people capable of hearing his story complexly, and imagining his point of view and the sense it makes to him.

The novel is full of engaging detail, surprise, and provocative situations that raise serious questions about public responsbility for child care, about care of damaged war veterans, about teachers' roles in children's lives, and about the myriad ways grief may manifest. A compelling read that adults will enjoy reading with the young people for whom it is intended.


Random House/Delacorte Press

Place Published

New York

Page Count