Eleven-year-old Ethan is a talented and enthusiastic amateur magician. He earns money and gains performing experience by conducting magic shows for local children’s birthday parties. After one such party, Ethan’s mother arrives to pick him up accompanied by his disabled two-year-old brother, Jake. Jake has multiple limitations — he can’t talk, eat solid foods, and can neither walk nor even sit up on his own. Ethan tries to deflect the children’s questions about Jake, as their lack of understanding makes him uncomfortable. Ethan and his middle-child brother, Freddie, love, nurture and give Jake emotional support. But Ethan has trouble handling the reactions of children who mock or taunt baby Jake due to inexperience, immaturity or unfamiliarity with disabilities.
One child at school calls Jake “a retard” and Ethan completely loses control, hitting the boy and knocking him down, which, although briefly satisfying as he feels he is justified, leads to consequences for Ethan. When he refuses to apologize for hitting a school-mate, Ethan is faced with a punishment he finds difficult to accept. He loses his hard-won permission to meet a famous professional magician, an idol of Ethan’s, from whom he is sure he can learn to perfect his performance skill and who, he is certain, will help him further his performing career. To add a further complication, Jake becomes terribly ill and Ethan, Freddie and their parents must learn to cope with the idea of this loss.
The reader is drawn into a loving, supportive family that provides a nurturing and encompassing environment, despite coping with difficult issues. Ethan’s parents, grandparents, teacher, family friends, and his own peers help him try to reach his goals. The reader watches him learn to make challenging and selfless choices, empathizing with him as he grows, matures, learns responsibility, and figures out how to process disappointment. The reader also gets a glimpse into a complex family life and learns that it is possible to lovingly care for a child with special needs while maximizing the child’s strengths. Other families with challenging issues are seen as they work together as a unit to help their children and others.
The family’s Judaism plays a small but significant role as Ethan wonders how God can allow a child like Jake to “be.” The family observes Yom Kippur and the power of prayer is a symbol of hope, the unknown, and the barely possible. The concept of heroism, during times of crisis but also during the conduct of daily life, is an ever-present theme.