Rather than a hero like Gary Cooper or John Wayne, Tommy can be sort of a bully at school, torturing Little Skinny and stealing from McKenzie's Grocery Store. While he is handsome and popular, what happens at home is far from happily ever after. His mom uses a belt when she gets angry, and the beatings only get worse after his sister, Mary Lou's horrific accident. One moment his mom is celebrating his birthday with a new pair of cowboy boots, and minutes later his birthday cake is smashing against the wall.
Life hardly seems much better after Tommy uncovers a copy of Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, when he is collecting for the paper drive with his friend Eddie. This discovery unleashes a series of events and relationships that affect so much more than a 12-year-old should be expected to handle. Determined to root out the Soviet spy living among his neighbors, Tommy inadvertently sets in motion the destruction of Mr. McKenzie's store, fuels suspicion about his neighbors, and uncovers the paper's owner in the very place that could hurt him the most.
Whether he is playing the accordian with Mrs. Glazov, a Russian refugee who lost her entire family to the Nazis', eating sandwiches in the back of McKenzie's store while Mrs. McKenzie loses her battle with tuberculosis, or standing with his dad facing the barrel of a gun, Tommy begins to understand the meaning of charity and forgiveness. He recognizes that "Sometimes there were words to make things better. And sometimes there weren't. Sometimes, the best you could do was just there and hold someone's hand (322).