The book is narrated by the main character ‘Will’, and begins in a field hospital near the Rhine River. Will is recovering from wounds received during the Battle of the Bulge as a lieutenant in the US Army. He reflects on the irony that he is near the site where his father was killed in World War I fighting with the German Army. Will was born in Germany. The route he traveled by train with his mother on their journey to America took them through the very location of the army hospital he was in twenty-three years later. The landscape looked the same, ravaged then during World War I, this time World War II. He reminisces about his experiences when he left Germany and during his first year in America, the year he worked as a ‘chickadee’.
Will describes that year as transformational, growing from a pampered, protected and withdrawn little boy, alone on the doorstep of a new world, into a resourceful, self-reliant and adaptive survivor.
Orphaned on the trip to America, Will fortuitously meets Dieter on the ferry shuttling émigrés to New York Harbor from Ellis Island. Unable to make contact with family living in the States, Will has no other option than to accept Deiter’s offer to join him on his way to Northern Wisconsin. Once there, they join Deiter’s brother Michael in a logging camp.
Will becomes the camp chickadee. His job was to remove ‘debris’ from the trails iced for the horse drawn sleds hauling the logs from the woods during the winter months. Will’s job, while arduous, posed far less danger than the loggers. Will encounters an array of characters including a pedophile, moonshiner, trapper, prostitutes, and a menagerie of personas that populated the logging camp.
Will develops survival skills through the tutelage of Deiter and Michael. While only nineteen years old, Deiter had an extraordinary and dangerous journey to America that included losing his parents and home in Poland, and fighting with the Polish resistance. His brother Michael was drafted into the Russian army prior to the War. Michael’s distain for Russia compelled him to desert. With the help of Polish nationals in London and America he made his way to Wisconsin and took a job as a timber assessor at a logging camp.
Michael and Deiter are fearless, confident and irrepressible, characteristics developed while enduring the cruelties and hardships of war torn Europe. Through their example and guidance, Will developed the personal strength and perseverance needed to survive the harsh realities facing an orphaned boy living and working in a 1920’s Northern Wisconsin lumber camp.
While visiting Deiter in a small rural hospital after a near fatal accident, a chance meeting of a nurse leads Will to find his uncle’s family. He joins their family which abruptly ends his year as a Chickadee.