The story begins with a prologue, introducing thirty-five year old Silas Dillon: minister, husband, father of four, and foster-father of six, as he reflectively tells of his childhood. With certain sorrow he tells of his birth mother’s instability and heroin addiction; and with criticism he protests the court’s repeatedly misdirected mercy toward her, which is what had kept him fettered in foster care through his youth. As he sits in the study of his parsonage on a rainy July afternoon, hearing the sounds of his full house of children, the reader is taken outside for a look at suburban Cary Island in New York Bay, the setting for this drama.
Chapter one opens with Silas describing the frigid night of his birth in a hospital on Cary Island. Born in the ordinary way, he enters this world without a father. His mother Maureen is going through heroin withdrawal, and decides immediately to sign him over to foster care, leaving him in the nursery.
For two years Silas is cared for by the Maddens: Earl, an angry, disconnected, preoccupied siding installer; and Sophia, his nicotine, food, and television addicted wife. We see neglect as they leave him alone often with Joseph, their abusive other foster child. On one occasion Sophia leaves him alone and terrified in his car seat in the driveway for hours. They abuse him physically themselves, venting their frustrations, making the outset of his life a damaged one.
As Maureen’s thin efforts at rebuilding her life satisfy a lenient judge, she’s given a chance with custody of Silas. He’s brought by his new, conscientiously ethical social worker Molly Fresh to Maureen’s “acceptable” apartment in a ghetto section of Cary Island. Here the reader is taken into her concealed world of prostitution and drug abuse, and Silas’s world of confusion and pain. Finally, after a month at this try, Molly pays a surprise visit and discovers Silas left alone in the squalor. He’s immediately removed from this environment, nurtured and shown love by Molly herself, placed for a time in an orphanage until a suitable foster parent welcomes him.
Silas is placed into Pastor Sparks’ home. Here lives a beautiful African-American family where Silas is cared for, loved, and where he develops a relationship with their son Justin, who is a loyal ten year old protector. The reader sees boyhood in an urban setting: fishing, stickball, school, and some humorous mischief. On one occasion Justin defends his little foster brother, taking blows from a local bully who picks on Silas. This emotional bond strokes the reader with feeling, making Silas’s next disruptive move more painfully dramatic.
After months of battling for adoption in court, the Sparks’ family must give Silas back to his troubled, newly pregnant and HIV infected mother again. She tries to parent him in a specially arranged halfway-house program where she’s watched as she “watches” him. This decision is made because of the new social concern that siblings should not be separated. This upheaval causes Silas to regress emotionally. The arrangement lasts for a year, but fails as Maureen has a relapse into heroin again. Molly, frustrated over these court decisions from the beginning, must now find Silas a new foster home as the Sparks family has moved out of the state’s child care jurisdiction, to Ohio, to a new pastorate. While they make a desperate and loving effort to reclaim him, their efforts prove to be futile.
Silas is moved through three more homes in the next three years. He grows increasingly unmanageable, causing foster parents to forgo caring for him. During this stretch, Molly leaves her job to marry and begin a family of her own. So, while her sincere concern remains, her tangible influence diminishes drastically. Silas’s birth mother Maureen also dies of AIDS during this time.
Silas’s next (eighth) placement is into another home on Cary Island where for one year he suffers horrific emotional, sexual, and even (unnoticed by the county) physical abuse. The principal villain, Simon Heller (foster brother), never gets caught.
At age fourteen now—being two years left back in school- Molly Fresh resurfaces. Having grieved over two miscarriages, she and her compassionate husband Andrew feel a desire to take Silas into their home and adopt him as their own, providing an outlook of hope and a prospect for a continuing sequel.