Teddy can't believe how fast his life has changed in just two years. When he was twelve, his father took off, and then his mother married Henry, a man Teddy despises. But Teddy has no control over his life, and adults make all the decisions, especially in 1959. Henry decides that Teddy should be sent to St. Ignatius Academy for Boys, an isolated boarding school run by the Catholic church.
St. Iggy's, Teddy learns, is a cold, unforgiving place ߞ something between a juvenile detention center and reform school. The other boys are mostly a cast of misfits and eccentrics, but Teddy quickly becomes best friends with Cooper, a wise-cracking, Wordsworth-loving kid with a history of neglect. Despite the priests' ruthless efforts to crack down on the slightest hint of defiance or attitude, the boys get by for a while on their wits, humor and dreams of escape. But the beatings, humiliation and hours spent in the school's infamous "time-out" rooms, and the institutionalized system of power and abuse that protects the priests' authority, eventually take their toll, especially on the increasingly fragile Cooper.
Then one of the new priests, Father Prince, starts to summon Cooper to his room at night, and Teddy watches helplessly as his friend withdraws into his own private nightmare, even as Prince targets Teddy himself as his next victim.
Teddy and Cooper's only reprieve comes on Saturdays, when the school janitor, Rozey, takes the boys to his run-down farmhouse outside of town, the only place where the boys can feel normal ߞ fishing, playing cribbage, watching the bears at the local dump. But even this can't stop Cooper's downward spiral and eventual suicide. And just when Teddy thinks something good might come out of his friend's tragedy, he finds himself dealing with the ultimate betrayal.