Steve travels to Spain to re-live a portion of his grandfather's past as a member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion that fought during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Steve is a teenager who is eager to be independent and has plans to travel to Europe by himself this summer. But that summer, his grandfather passes away. He was a very extraordinary man with an interesting past. Steve and his whole family including his extended relatives attend the reading of their grandfather's will. Everyone is surprised when their grandfather's lawyer explains that all the adults must leave the room before he reads the grandfather's will. The lawyer shows the grandsons a video. In the video, their grandfather wishes his grandsons to grow up into strong, independent men and he asks his lawyer to give each of his grandsons an envelope. Steve's envelope contains a letter from his grandfather telling him to go to Spain and help him solve a mystery that has been plaguing his grandfather for seventy years. The envelope contains several clues: a photograph of his grandfather when he was young with a mysterious girl, a key, an address in Spain and several lines of a poem. Steve is excited to travel to Spain on his own.
When Steve lands in Spain, he boards a bus that is full of people who speak Catalan instead of Spanish. Luckily there is a woman there who can speak English. Steve explains that he's here to find out what happened to his grandfather who had lived in Spain as a member of the International Brigade during the 1930s when Spain was going through a civil war. The woman gives Steve her grandfather's address and suggests he interview him since he was rescued by some soldiers during the war and may have some stories relevant to helping Steve. Steve travels to the address his grandfather gave him and sees the exact location and scene that is in the old photograph of his grandfather. When he knocks on the door of the house near that location he is greeted by a girl named Laia who looks almost exactly like the girl in the photograph that is with his grandfather.
Laia gives Steve an old suitcase which Steve is able to open using the key his grandfather gave him. There is also a letter from his grandfather explaining that he had been a soldier in the second World War and was shot down and smuggled into Spain where he met a woman named Maria, who is Laia's late great-grandmother. The suitcase contains old newspaper clippings about Fascism in Spain as well as a journal that belongs to his grandfather. Laia suggests that Steve come with her to explore all the locations described in the journal – including some of the famous battlefields in Spain.
As they ride a train towards the Ebre River where her grandfather fought, she tells Steve more about the history of the Spanish Civil War. She explains that the Anarchists and the Communists fought against each other even though they were supposed to be on the same side, supporting the Republic's fight against Fascism. Apparently Steve's grandfather was involved in the battle at Ebre whic was the Republic's all-out deciding battle against Fascism. If successful, this battle was supposed to convince the French and British to support Spain in the war against Fascism and Mussolini and HItler. Steve's grandfather was part of the Mackenzie-Papineau (Mac-Pap) Battalion from Canada.
Steve and Laia arrive at the ruins of Flix Castle near the Ebre River where the battalion began its march. There, Steve is surprised to be greeted by friendly locals who still remember the tragedy of the civil war and the courage of the Mac-Pap soldiers. Steve is shown a bomb shelter that has been transformed into a museum.
Laia has the idea to rent scooters to travel to their next destination, the town of Corbera. Steve remembers that the grandfather of the lady he met on the bus also lives here and decides to visit him. In his journal, Steve's grandfather writes that Corbera was heavily bombed and they were losing the battle. Steve's grandfather begins to write about how the way to achieve an end to Fascism may not be worth the pain and suffering. In the journal, his grandfather describes that he rescued a boy from a ruined house during the battle. Steve is surprised to find that the grandfather of the lady he met on the bus is the same boy who his own grandfather had rescued. This boy, now an old man, is bitter about the war and he tells Steve that though he is grateful for being rescued, he doesn't think Steve's grandfather was necessarily fighting for the right cause, either. Apparently communists like Steve's grandfather killed innocent nuns, one of the nuns being a relative of the old man. Steve learns that history is more complicating than he thought.
Steve reads in his grandfather's journal that during a retreat to the town of Gandesa, his grandfather had tried to save one of the soldiers in his battalion but he himself became injured and he watched as each of his friends died. He was then taken to a hospital which is where he meets Maria, Laia's great grandmother, and fell in love. The Communists lose the war and his grandfather must escape Spain or be caught by the Fascists. The journal ends with his grandfather promising to himself that he will return to Spain one day.
Steve thinks that his grandfather had deeply regretted never returning to Spain to see Maria again. Laia tells Steve that Maria had waited for him to return and had planned on trying to communicate with his grandfather. Steve and Laia both think it is a bit tragic that they never did reunite.
The story ends with Steve and Laia deciding to retrace the romance between Steve's grandfather and Laia's great grandmother by exploring Barcelona's streets together.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like Steve's grandfather and how he decides to give his grandsons more genuine gifts. Rather than just money, he gives his grandsons an opportunity to experience life with the hope that they will grow up to be well-rounded adults. I thought this was an interesting premise for Steve's adventure in Spain. I also like that the story discusses the realities of war and the masses of innocents that get caught in the crossfire.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Steve arrives in the location where his grandfather's photograph was taken. I thought it was funny that he was about to knock on Laia's door when she opens the door herself since she was about to go out. There is a funny moment when Laia thinks that Steve is going to hit her because he has his hand raised.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Steve had a close relationship with his grandfather that urged him to try to imagine what his grandfather might have lived through as a soldier. Steve is very daring to go traveling by himself in a country whose language he doesn't really speak.