Recently orphaned 15-year old Charley Thompson must fend for himself as he journeys westward in hopes of reuniting with his long-lost aunt. Charley Thompson wants a stable, happy life; the kind he may have had if his mom were still alive. Most of all, he just wants to stop running -- from town to town, from one disaster to the next.
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Charley doesn't remember his mother. She died when he was an infant. He often wonders what she was like. Maybe if his mom were still around, Charley and has dad Ray wouldn't have to move so frequently.
One late summer evening Charley and Ray pack up to head for Portland. Charley begs his father to let them stay in the small Oregon hamlet they'd called home for the last two months. As always, Ray father refuses Charley's pleas. The two gather what personal effects they've managed to hold on to through their summers and winters on the run.
On the train ride to Portland, Charley daydreams about an ordinary life: a family dinner with his mother and father; school friends, playing on a football team; yearbooks, and memories. He wistfully yearns for stability and continuity, and is angry at his father for refusing to provide it.
In Portland, Ray and Charley settle into their typical new-city patterns. Ray works long hours at a large industrial-commercial farm on the outskirts of town. Charley spends most of his time exploring the city by foot. He spends many days and nights alone, wondering as to the whereabouts of his father, who often doesn't come home for days at a time. Their one room shack is in a wooded area, howling wild dogs, feral cats, and dense mysterious forestry. Most nights, Charley suffers from hunger, loneliness, and fear.
Charley meets a horse-stable owner named Del. Del gives him work feeding and looking after the horses. Charley isn't sure what Del does with his horses, but he doesn't pry. He enjoys the work, and the money is good. Besides, Del seems quite recalcitrant to discuss the business with his horses. Charley develops a special bond with one horse in particular: Lean on Pete. He begins talking to the horse, telling Lean on Pete of his childhood memories and his current struggles.
Charley's father Ray starts dating a married woman named Lynn. Lynn assures Ray that she and her husband are estranged. Yet Charley remains concerned about his fathers relationship with this mysterious woman. One night, Lynn's husband breaks into their home, violently attacking Ray and leaving him fatally injured. Two days later, Ray dies alone in the hospital. Charley is left orphaned; with Lean on Pete as his only friend.
Charley overhears Del on the telephone, thus learning the nature of Del's business. Del races his horses to near-death, then sells them off to a slaughterhouse in Mexico. Charley decides to save Lean on Pete from such a fate. He loads the horse into Del's mobile trailer, then drives off with Del's truck and trailer in the middle of the night. Charley plans to go out east to Wyoming, to reunite with his long-lost aunt Margy.
50 miles east of Oregon, Del's truck breaks down. Charley and Lean on Pete abandon the vehicle at the side of the road and continue on by foot. Crossing the highway, they hear a loud commotion from a group of construction workers overhead. Lean on Pete is startled by the strange noises. He runs out into the highway. He is struck by a car and killed.
Charley continues his journey to Wyoming alone. He's grief-stricken by the death of his only friend, but is still determined to find Margy; she's the only family he has left. To survive, Charley takes to stealing food from local grocery stores and private residences. He sleeps in boxcars, abandoned warehouses, and open fields. Finally, he reaches Wyoming. He researches the name Margaret Thompson in the library, and visits the home of every person by that name in the state. Still, he's unable to locate his aunt. Feeling thoroughly discouraged, he visits a cafe where Margy once worked. There, one of Margy's former co-workers gives Charley her current address.
Charley finds Margy, and they enjoy a heartfelt reunion. Margy feeds and clothes Charley. Then they register the boy at the local high school. For once, Charley feels that he's home. He looks forward to playing football in the upcoming school year.
Best part of story, including ending:
The descriptive language is sparse and beautiful. Vlautin presents desolate landscapes and depressing realities in a manner that is at once refreshing and, somehow, uplifting.
Best scene in story:
Lean on Pete runs into the highway and is hit by a car. He falls down with a broken leg. The police are nearby. Charley wants to approach his horse, to console the animal in his moment of pain and perhaps death. Yet he knows that he can't afford to get too close to the police, otherwise he would be detained and would not make it to Wyoming. Observing Charley calculate and maneuver this emotionally-laden moment helps us to connect with him. We see his strong sentimental side, and we also see his mature practical survival instincts, which win the day.
Opinion about the main character:
Charley is an immensely like able character. He is clever, full of wit, and adventurous. He's also noble and sensitive to the pain and sufferings of others. It's easy for us to empathize with Charley's pain, if only because he himself is so empathetic toward others.