As the book opens, Andy, just five years old, is living in a tiny apartment in Chicago with his grandmother. There is a closeness between the two of them and, although they don’t have much money, they seem to have a nice life together. That life is shattered when Andy’s very young mother is released from prison and calls her mother to send Andy out to California to live with her.
Andy’s mother, Hope, is ill-equipped as a mother, but it is clear that she loves Andy dearly and wants to have him close to her. She is only in her early 20’s and is used to a wild life of partying with her friends, but she tries to take care of Andy. They live in a small apartment in North Hollywood, and Hope gets a job in a beauty salon. For a while, it looks like they may manage on their own, even without the absent-but-promised child support payments from her ex-husband.
Money gets even tighter, though, and Hope gets more and more desperate. A string of hardships and ordeals ensues which Andy remembers through the perceptions of his child’s mind. Eventually, a terrible violent crime triggers ever-worsening mental health issues in Hope, and at the age of seven – having spent only two years with her – Andy is taken away from his mother and begins his long stint “in the system.”
Andy experiences both horrifying institutional care (which closely resembles kiddie prison) and foster care. Unlike some foster children, he is fortunate enough not to be moved from one family to another, but he never forms a solid bond with his foster family, in part because he is still waiting for his mother to come back for him. No one ever explains to Andy what is happening or asks him a single question about other family members or what he wants.
Andy tells his story in an open and matter-of-fact way, sharing with the reader both the details of his lonely external life and the thoughts and perceptions that shaped his childhood. The amazing thing is that Andy grew up to graduate from Harvard Law School (no spoiler there – you know that from the back cover!) and to advocate for other children in the foster care system. The story of how he gets from abandoned child to Ivy League lawyer is fascinating, inspirational, and often, heart-breaking.