Fourteen-year-old Nate Chance knows that times are hard on his 400-acre Montana dairy farm. His dad has been having a streak of bad luck: if it wasn't milk virus, it was drought, or the need to buy expensive equipment. And it doesn't help that Poppa, his mother's father, seems to think this is all his son-in-law's fault for not being a better farmer. On top of all this, Mom and Dad's fights are getting worse all the time.
Still, Nate and his little sister, Junie, are able to appreciate many things that make their father special: his ability to build anything, rattle off batting averages and answer just about any question in science. So when Nate comes home from school one day to find police officers leading his father away with blood pouring down his face, he finds his world shattered and his loyalties torn. At last, he learns that his father, after a botched suicide attempt, has been left blind and sent to a mental institution.
In the coming months, Nate and Junie find themselves confronting the prejudice of classmates and their families. Despite the trauma at home, Nate tries to focus on something close to his heart: the eighth-grade science fair. He dreams of winning first prize and showing his father the trophy. Paired with a girl named Naomi, who struggles with her own difficult family situation, Nate determines to build something called a cloud chamber, an apparatus to make atomic particles visible to the naked eye.
Nate, Junie and Naomi are appealing characters. Maynard shows us their attempts to balance the world of school and peer relationships, while at the same time trying to sort through the tumultuous events in their families. Somehow, by the end of this difficult year, Nate and Naomi succeed in building the cloud chamber. As it turns out, Nate does not achieve the public recognition of which he had dreamed. Still, he finds a way to use the cloud chamber to come to a better appreciation of both of his parents, and an acceptance of the future. Deborah Hopkinson latest book for children is Who Was Charles Darwin?