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 “sounds 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 looks 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 school. Doug is intelligent, and when Miss Cowper shows him the basics, he learns to read very quickly. In mid-October, the local hardware store is robbed, and Doug’s brother is again the focus of the investigation.
Coach Reed catches Doug switching from the skins to the shirts team again. In the confrontation that follows, the boy’s shirt is ripped from his body, revealing something he does not want anyone to see. Everyone is uncomfortably silent when Doug walks into his next class in Mr. Ferris’s room. Doug is mortified and runs away, with his teacher in pursuit. Mr. Ferris corners Doug and makes him tell what is wrong. Doug relates the horrifying tale of his twelfth birthday, when his drunken father forcefully took him get his present, “the funniest thing in the whole stupid world”: a gaily decorated tattoo that reads “Mama’s Baby.” Doug goes into a tailspin after his humiliating secret is revealed; he stops drawing, refuses to see Miss Cowper after school, and gets into numerous fights. He still works at his delivery job on Saturdays, though, because his father wants the money.
Although he always speaks disparagingly about his boss, Mr. Ballard, Doug’s father insists on taking the family to the annual company picnic because there will be a trivia contest on Babe Ruth, which he and Ernie Eco are determined to win. Contrary to expectations, the picnic turns out to be a wonderful event, like “something out of a fairy tale.” The women welcome Doug’s mother warmly, the food is delicious, and Doug and his brother receive real Timex watches, “compliments of the Ballard Paper Mill.” Most of the kids go swimming in the lake, but Doug wanders over to the horseshoe pit, where an “old guy” befriends him and shows him how to play. When the trivia contest begins, the old man, who turns out to be Mr. Ballard himself, asks Doug to be his partner, and their team wins. Mr. Ballard tells Doug to come by his office on Monday to see about his prizes, which include a cash bonus and a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Doug’s father tells him that Mr. Ballard will not follow through because Doug is not an employee, so the disappointed boy does not go.
Doug does visit Mr. Ballard later in the week, however, and learns that his father has taken the hundred-dollar prize as well as the baseball signed by Ruth, ostensibly to give to him. Mr. Ballard senses that Doug has not received his winnings. He happens to be hanging up a plate of the Yellow Shank by Audubon, which he has just secured. Seeing the boy’s interest, he asks what he thinks, and without meaning to Doug blurts out, “I think it belongs back in the book.” Mr. Ballard considers this and gives the plate to Doug to return to the library.