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As the novel opens, Yussef is a twelve-year-old boy. He has spent all of his life with his family in the south of Iraq, in a rural setting where his parents have managed to make a living raising goats and vegetables.

Yussef has a little schooling and has learned a little English from a mobile library that stops near his home on a monthly basis. But he is hardly prepared for the opening scene.

A travelling salesman has stopped at his home. Yussef, bored with the conversation, wanders off and falls asleep away from his home. Waking in the morning, he finds that his entire family has disappeared. He is alone in the desert. There is no trace of his family.

Yussef, accompanied by another "orphan" (a goat named Tenika), goes in search of his family, a journey which covers about 500 miles over a two month period. Along the way he meets people who will, in one way or another, play a part in the rest of his life.

His journey leads him to a French Doctor, Yvette Prigent, which in turn, leads him to Sergeant Ernesto Alvarez. Sergeant Alvarez is a Blackhawk pilot attached to the 101st Airborne Division. The Sergeant has been busted down in rank a short while before meeting Yussef, for taking his "bird" on an an unauthorised mission of mercy. Nonetheless, after meeting Yussef, he attempts another mission of mercy - an attempt to reunite Yussef with his family.

Yussef and Sergeant Alvarez are shot down and captured by "insurgents". One of the captors, a former student at UC, Santa Cruz (pre-911) helps the Iraqi boy and the wounded American pilot escape, even as his comrads discuss selling the American.

Yussef faces many decisions along his journey - decisions that the average twelve-year-old should never have to face. He uses his instincts, his heart, and his mind to find solutions. In other words, he uses all his resources within every situation. And he survives.

At the end of Part One of the novel, Yussef rejoins his family. His father, who is very ill, managed to hang-on until Yussef joins them at a refugee camp hospital. On his deathbed, Yussef's father reaches out to Yussef in a dying grasp and a "strong energy" seems to flow from the father to the son.

Yussef and his family return to their rural home in Southern Iraq, where he is faced with taking over the duties of his father and of leading the family.