Doug Swieteck’s life is anything but ideal.
His abusive father makes life miserable for his family, and as the youngest of three sons, Doug frequently takes the brunt of his rage. The older Swieteck boys seem to be following in their father’s footsteps; his brother Lucas only stopped beating up Doug when he got drafted and sent to Vietnam. Doug’s sole ally in the family is his mother, a gentle woman with a beautiful smile who struggles constantly to placate her husband but retains an amazing capacity to nurture and love.
When Doug’s father is fired from his job, the family moves upstate from Long Island to the small town of Marysville. Before they leave, Holling Hoodhood, one of Doug’s friends from Camillo Junior High, brings him a parting gift: a New York Yankees jacket that had been given to him by Joe Pepitone. Doug’s father’s shady friend Ernie Eco secured a new home for the Swietecks. It is squalid, and Doug christens it “The Dump.” He is pleased that the place at least has a basement where he can hide his jacket from the vindictive grasp of his middle brother.
Doug is befriended by Lil Spicer, a smart, feisty girl whose father owns Spicer’s Deli. Lil’s father gives Doug a job delivering groceries on Saturdays. Mr. Swieteck takes the money his son makes every week but does not know about the tips. Lil brings some daisies over so Mrs. Swieteck can have a garden, but after they are planted, Doug’s brother spits on them.
In September, Doug starts the eighth grade at Washington Irving Junior High and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with condescending Principal Peattie. Lil introduces Doug to the local library, where he is drawn to a folio by John James Audubon, which is displayed in a glass case and opened to a plate of the Arctic Tern, a falling bird with a “terrified eye.” When Doug returns to the library to see the masterpiece again, Mr. Powell, an artistic employee, recognizes his interest and teaches him how to draw the bird. Doug has talent, and for the first time in his life, he experiences pride in his work. But one Saturday, the plate of the Arctic Tern is gone, replaced by another, the Large-Billed Puffins. The city is mutilating the Audubon folio and selling the valuable plates one by one to pay its debts.
Spicer’s Deli is robbed one night, and the police suspect Doug’s brother. As the new kid in town, Doug already feels out of place, but now he senses that everyone sees him as a “hoodlum in training.” He begins taking out his frustrations on Lil until he realizes that he “sound[s] like Lucas.” He stops himself and apologizes. Doug’s science teacher, Mr. Ferris, senses his discomfiture and reassures him, saying, “In this class, you are not your brother.” His English class is reading Jane Eyre, which, even its abridged form, has a hundred and sixty pages. Mr. Powell offers to help but Doug stubbornly declares, “I’m not going to read it.” At home, there is a letter from Lucas, written for him by someone else. Lucas has been wounded but will be coming home; he hopes the family will not mind “if he look[s] a little bit different.”
October comes, and Doug continues drawing with Mr. Powell at the library, but the Puffins have been replaced by a rendering of a dying Black-Backed Gull. In disagreeable Coach Reed’s physical education class, Doug is assigned to play with the skins in basketball but insists on sneaking over to the shirts team, which earns him several detentions. When he is called into Principal Peattie’s office, Doug is astounded to see an Audubon plate, the Brown Pelican, in a frame on the administrator’s wall.
Doug serves his detentions in Mr. Ferris’s room, and when the perceptive educator tries to help him learn the periodic table, he discovers “what no teacher [has] figured out before”: Doug Swieteck does not know how to read. Mr. Ferris tactfully consults with the English teacher, Miss Cowper, who begins to work with Doug every day after school. Doug is intelligent, and when Miss Cowper shows him the basics, he learns to read very quickly. In mid-October, the local hardware store is robbed, and Doug’s brother is again the focus of the investigation.
Coach Reed catches Doug switching from the skins to the shirts team again. In the confrontation that follows, the boy’s shirt is ripped from his body, revealing something he does not want anyone to see. Everyone is uncomfortably silent when Doug walks into his next class in Mr. Ferris’s room. Doug is mortified and runs away, with his teacher in pursuit. Mr. Ferris corners Doug and makes him tell what is wrong. Doug relates the horrifying tale of his twelfth birthday, when his drunken father forcefully took him get his present, “the funniest thing in the whole stupid world”: a gaily decorated tattoo that reads “Mama’s Baby.” Doug goes into a tailspin after his humiliating secret is revealed; he stops drawing, refuses to see Miss Cowper after school, and gets into numerous fights. He still works at his delivery job on Saturdays, though, because his father wants the money.
Although he always speaks disparagingly about his boss, Mr. Ballard, Doug’s father insists on taking the family to the annual company picnic because there will be a trivia contest on Babe Ruth, which he and Ernie Eco are determined to win. Contrary to expectations, the picnic turns out to be a wonderful event, like “something out of a fairy tale.” The women welcome Doug’s mother warmly, the food is delicious, and Doug and his brother receive real Timex watches, “compliments of the Ballard Paper Mill.” Most of the kids go swimming in the lake, but Doug wanders over to the horseshoe pit, where an “old guy” befriends him and shows him how to play. When the trivia contest begins, the old man, who turns out to be Mr. Ballard himself, asks Doug to be his partner, and their team wins. Mr. Ballard tells Doug to come by his office on Monday to see about his prizes, which include a cash bonus and a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Doug’s father tells him that Mr. Ballard will not follow through because Doug is not an employee, so the disappointed boy does not go.
Doug does visit Mr. Ballard later in the week, however, and learns that his father has taken the hundred-dollar prize as well as the baseball signed by Ruth, ostensibly to give to him. Mr. Ballard senses that Doug has not received his winnings. He happens to be hanging up a plate of the Yellow Shank by Audubon, which he has just secured. Seeing the boy’s interest, he asks what he thinks, and without meaning to Doug blurts out, “I think it belongs back in the book.” Mr. Ballard considers this and gives the plate to Doug to return to the library.
Doug tells his father what Mr. Ballard said. When...
(The entire section is 2785 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
Doug Swieteck's most prized possession is a signed baseball cap given to him by his hero, the great Joe Pepitone. It is "the only thing [he] ever owned that hadn't belonged to some other Swieteck before [him]."
Despite his efforts to keep it safe, however, Doug's brother wrestles the cap away from him one night out of sheer meanness, and passes it off to his friends, until eventually, it is lost. Doug tries to convince his father to take him to Yankee Stadium so that he can see Joe Pepitone again and maybe get another hat. His father is a drunk and responds to his son's entreaties characteristically—with his fists.
Mr. Swieteck has a terrible chip on his shoulder, and when he mouths off to his boss one day, he is unceremoniously fired. He comes home and announces to his family that his friend Ernie Eco has found him a better job at Ballard Paper Mill. They will be moving to Marysville, in upstate New York. Doug's mother is not happy that her husband is renewing his acquaintance with Ernie, who is nothing but trouble, and she is worried that they will not be able to notify their oldest son, Lucas, who is serving in Vietnam, about the move. She has no say in the matter however. Three days later, the Swietecks have everything packed and are ready to leave. Before they go, Holling Hoodhood, a classmate of Doug's from Camillo Junior High School, comes by with a gift. It is the New York Yankees jacket that Holling had received from Joe Pepitone on the same day that Doug had gotten his cap.
The new house at Marysville is small and filthy, and Doug immediately christens it "The Dump." After the big items are unloaded from the truck, Doug is left alone to finish with the smaller boxes, while the rest of the family goes to a diner to get something to eat. When Doug is finished, he goes down into the basement, where he hides the precious jacket that had belonged to Joe Pepitone. He then goes out to explore "stupid Marysville" and runs into a girl his age,...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Doug arrives at the library early the following Saturday. He is reprimanded by the disagreeable librarian, Mrs. Merriam, for sitting on the front steps. Doug is rude right back to her but then realizes that he sounds "just like Lucas." A second library employee, Mr. Powell, is much friendlier and lets Doug into the library early. When Doug returns to the room where The Arctic Tern is displayed, Mr. Powell comes up and, seeing Doug's interest, informs him that the work's artist is John James Audubon. Mr. Powell asks Doug if he would like to try re-creating the picture himself, but Doug answers curtly, "I don't draw."
On Doug's first day working at the deli, Mr. Spicer gives him a packed wagon and a map with the...
(The entire section is 787 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Doug goes to the library every Saturday to practice drawing with Mr. Powell. For his first lesson, he is guided to examine Audubon's rendering of The Arctic Tern, and he tries to reproduce it. Doug shows a natural affinity for composition, and he is gratified when Mr. Powell addresses him as "young artist."
On the first Monday of September, Doug goes with his mother to a "Get-Acquainted" event for all new students at Washington Irving Junior High School. Doug is the only eighth-grader who is a newcomer. He is sent with a group of seventh-graders to a classroom to listen to a presentation by Principal Peattie, a pompous man with the irritating habit of speaking of himself in the third person. The principal goes...
(The entire section is 811 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
As Doug continues to progress with his drawing lessons under Mr. Powell, he begins to actually think of himself as an artist. To his delight, Lil, with characteristic honesty, affirms his new self-concept. At school, the teachers ignore Doug for the most part, except in science, where he earns Mr. Ferris's approval on a science project he completes in conjunction with Lil. All in all, Doug is proud that he is managing to stay out of trouble; he even escapes the detection of Coach Reed when he surreptitiously switches from the skins to the shirts team in basketball.
On the last Saturday in October, Doug discovers that The Large-Billed Puffins, like The Arctic Tern, is gone. It is replaced by The...
(The entire section is 772 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Doug essentially shuts down in the aftermath of his humiliation. He stops trying in school and gets in constant fights. In PE class, he decides to run the cross-country course while the rest of the class does the Wrestling Unit, and Coach Reed sees him but does not stop him. Doug does not even go to the library anymore to continue his drawing lessons; the only activity he continues with is his delivery job, because his father demands the money.
The last thing Doug wants to do on the last Saturday in October is attend the Annual Ballard Paper Mill Employee Picnic, but even though his father constantly bad-mouths both his boss and the event, he makes the family go because he and Ernie Eco want to win the Trivia...
(The entire section is 809 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Doug continues to run with James Russell and Otis Bottom during PE while the rest of the class does the wrestling unit. On the week before Thanksgiving, Doug is summoned into the principal’s office and told that because he has been cutting PE class for weeks, he will have to make up the entire wrestling unit during his fifth period lunch. Doug argues that he has been out running and that Coach Reed has seen him go out every day and has never said a word, but Principal Peattie is unyielding. Even though James Russell and Otis Bottom have been out running too, they are not required to make up the time. After pronouncing his sentence, the principal lets Doug go. But in dismissing him, the principal says something so demoralizing...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
It snows every Saturday during January and into February. Doug is forced to make his deliveries using a toboggan instead of a wagon, but the discomfort of his job is lessened because of the kindness of his customers. Each of them invites him in for conversation and a warm treat; Doug looks forward especially to his time with Mrs. Windermere, who serves him actual coffee, black. Mrs. Windermere's stage adaptation is coming along nicely, and though she informs him that people are "already lining up to buy tickets," Doug cannot understand why anyone would pay to see a production of Jane Eyre.
At the library, The Snowy Heron is now gone from the Audubon collection, like the five pages before it. Under Mr....
(The entire section is 837 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Just when Doug starts to believe that his life really has taken a turn for the better, he arrives home one Saturday to find that his autographed baseball and beloved Joe Pepitone jacket are gone. Shortly thereafter, the local hardware store is robbed, and suspicion falls again on his brother, Christopher. Even though Christopher denies having had any involvement in the break-in, a bike pedal matching one missing from his bike is found at the scene of the crime. When Christopher is taken into custody, Doug runs to Ballard Paper Mill to get his father, who looks meaningfully at Ernie Eco before leaving with Doug to bail Christopher out of jail.
As expected, news travels quickly, and when Doug returns to school, he is met...
(The entire section is 783 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Spring finally arrives on the first Saturday in May. On his delivery route, Doug takes Lil with him to meet Mrs. Windermere, and the two young people walk hand-in-hand through the burgeoning greenery of the fields leading to the woman's house. When Doug introduces Lil to the eccentric writer, Mrs. Windermere candidly asks if Lil is his girlfriend. With more than a little embarrassment, Doug replies, "Yes."
Mrs. Windermere has a visitor, a man named Mr. Gregory, who will be producing her stage adaptation of Jane Eyre. Mr. Gregory has been having problems finding an actress to play the part of Helen Burns, but when he sees Lil, he immediately decides that she is perfect for the part. Lil protests that she is not...
(The entire section is 760 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The doctors give Lil a one in four chance of surviving.
On the first Saturday in June, Doug reports to work at Spicer's Deli. He is told by Mr. Spicer that he can no longer keep Doug in his employ, as Lil's hospital bills have left him with no money with which to pay, but Doug stays on anyway. All of his customers that day have good wishes and gifts to send to Lil, which Doug accepts gratefully, but when Mrs. Windermere asks him about his girlfriend's situation, he cannot help but break down and cry. At the library, Mr. Powell has Doug begin work on adding color to his replication of The Arctic Tern. The kind man suggests that the finished product will be a surprise for Lil.
Doug then visits Lil,...
(The entire section is 868 words.)