It's summer, 1961, and Sonny Hickam is winding up his first year in college. He's not the same boy who once launched rockets and dreamed of being a space engineer. In fact, he's confused as to what he wants to do. All he knows is he's looking forward to a three-month vacation at the beach helping his mother work on her new dream house. But to discover his future, he must return to his past. A telephone call sends him back to the place he thought he had escaped, the gritty little coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. There he finds his father, the mine superintendent, under fire for the death of one of his foremen and the townspeople in conflict over the future of the town. It doesn't take long before Sonny finds himself deep inside not only the puzzles and riddles of Coalwood but the mine itself! Cut off from his college funds by his father, he has no choice but to go to work in the mine as a common laborer. He is also mesmerized by a beautiful older woman who also has dreams, ones that Sonny hopes to share. As the summer passes, Sonny finds himself changing in surprising ways, including finding pride in being a "track-laying man," the toughest job in the mine. But nothing is what it seems in Coalwood. Every time Sonny thinks he's solved a puzzle, he turns up another one, from Coalwood's "Secret Man" to the motives of his work crew in the mine. And then an old friend and an old enemy turn up, intent on destroying not only Sonny's dad but Coalwood itself. To save his father, the town, and himself, Sonny must go deep inside the mysterious heart of Coalwood itself. The shocking answers he finds there will change his life forever.