When we meet nine-year-old Gunner, he is living with his reclusive 18-year-old sister Sally and their surly bartender father, who drinks too much and beats Gunner for breathing. (Gunner's mother died giving birth to him.) Then Sally takes off for California and a man she met at a traveling carnival, and the beating Gunner's father gives him on hearing the news leaves him bloody and unconscious in a field. He is found there by motherly Snow, the new housekeeper of his non-friend Jimmy's grandfather. Much to vicious Jimmy's chargin, the ailing old man takes Gunner in, tolerates his rough language and crude manners, tells him all about his mother and the grandparents and great-grandparents he didn't know he had, and then, to Gunner's and Snow's sorrow, dies. Sally, Gunner has heard by now, is on her way home, and so we know at the end that Gunner will return home, fortified presumably by his contact with the old man. The message underlying Orr's ending is appropriate for most kids with parent problems, but after the beating we have witnessed it's hard not to wonder how Gunner will survive and why Snow wouldn't prevent his returning. Nevertheless, Orr makes a touching story of Gunner's stay in his first real home and of the new-found sense of self he takes back with him.