Twelve-year-old Jack Hawthorne is driving the cultipacker on his father’s farm when his seven-year-old brother, David, riding on the back, falls off and is run over and killed. Believing that he could have saved his brother if he had thought clearly, Jack blames himself. His father, Dale, is nearly destroyed by the accident and periodically rides off on his motorcycle, cursing God and himself, contemplating suicide, and seducing women with his tears. Although Dale does not blame Jack consciously, his behavior intensifies Jack’s guilt. Dale’s actions also increase his wife’s sorrow, but she only cries at night behind closed doors. Barely able to move, she still takes care of her children and does her work. Religious faith and support from friends enable her to go on. She keeps her children busy with chores and activities, including piano lessons for Phoebe and French horn for Jack.
Jack’s behavior initially parallels his father’s. Driving the tractor, he condemns himself for not saving his brother and thinks of suicide. Jack always tells himself stories as he works. Before the accident, they were fantasies about sexual conquest and heroic battles. Now they are pitiful stories in which he redeems himself by sacrificing his life for others. Jack keeps aloof from people, becoming silent like his father and uncles, who never talk about their problems or feelings. Jack feels closer to the cows than he does to human beings. Finding momentary solace in nature, feeling at one with it all, he can forget about David temporarily, but he cannot sustain this escape.
One day when Phoebe brings lunch to Jack in the field, and he begins drinking his tea, she asks if he wants to say grace. Trying not to upset her, Jack says that he already said it, but not out loud. He realizes that if he did not say grace, Phoebe might think that there is no heaven, that their father would never get well, and that David was dead. Dale, thinking of his family, like Jack empathizing with Phoebe, realizes that he is hurting them and returns home to stay. Coming in the house one evening after doing his chores, Jack sees his father kneeling in front of his mother with his head on her lap, crying. Phoebe is hugging both parents. Dale calls to Jack, who joins them, but he says to his father so softly that no one can hear: “I hate you.” Jack keeps himself even more secluded now that his father is home. He uses all of his spare time practicing his French horn and fantasizing about leaving them all. One day when he asks his teacher, the arrogant Yegudkin, if he thinks that he, Jack, will ever play like him, Yegudkin laughs dismissively. Humbled, Jack nevertheless agrees to return the next Saturday for his lesson. Outside, with his horn under one arm, his music under the other, Jack plunges into a space made for him by the crowd of shoppers, starting home. Like his father before him, he will be welcomed warmly back into the family.