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...
(The entire section is 2,785 words.)