The first page drops us immediately into the early days of the Korean War. Devastating losses have pushed Cpl. Robert Leavitt quickly up the ranks, and now, as the North Koreans advance, he commands a thinly stretched platoon charged with evacuating refugees. In the ensuing chaos, American fighter pilots strafe the peasants under his charge and send them scurrying into a tunnel, where they're pinned down by panicked U.S. servicemen.
Phillips's story is inspired by the alleged No Gun Ri massacre, which was the subject of the Associated Press's controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé in 2000, but there's nothing polemic about her riveting portrayal of that event. She's interested only in the waste of war and the heroism of young Cpl. Leavitt, who continues caring for the doomed refugees despite his own injuries. "He sees that war never ends," she writes. "It's all one war despite players or location, war that sleeps dormant for years or months, then erupts and lifts its flaming head to find regimes changed, topography altered, weaponry recast."
Knowing what transpired at No Gun Ri saps none of the suspense from this gripping scene because Phillips keeps a tight focus on Leavitt's interaction with a young Korean girl and her blind brother. As the three of them struggle to survive, Leavitt's thoughts drift back to the vibrant bar singer he married just before shipping out, and he senses, correctly, that she's giving birth to a son in the States on this very day.
Through that mesmerizing war tale is woven the other story, set in West Virginia in 1959. Leavitt's now 9-year-old son, nicknamed Termite, is severely physically and mentally handicapped, unable to speak or walk. He's cared for by his tireless aunt and his devoted 17-year-old half-sister, Lark. Phillips narrates in each of these three characters' voices, carefully revealing the complicated, sad history of their makeshift family. Lark is determined to care for her half-brother no matter how that burden might constrain her own life. She never accepts the discouraging diagnoses about his mental perceptions, and she realizes that he's all she has left of her vanished mother. "From the time I was a kid," she says, "I thought his head was heavy because there was so much in it he couldn't tell or say. That everything had stayed in him, whether he recognized the pictures or not. That he'd kept all the words I couldn't call up, our mother's words and words about her. Words from before we were born, what I heard until I was three and forgot."
Lark's aunt, a single woman with no kids of her own, is doing the best she can by her sister's children, but past betrayals have made her wary of accepting help from anyone, even her hardworking boyfriend, who seems willing to wait forever to regain her trust. But she's more concerned with the problem of giving Lark a normal life while keeping Termite from being institutionalized. A nosey social worker keeps poking around, offering helpful advice and a new wheelchair, but the aunt is deeply suspicious.