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Gus, a 7-year-old boy, is faced with a serious dilemma, when his sister's child Tom, who is the same age, comes to visit for the summer. Gus's status as an uncle quickly separates him from other children and alienates him from his parents, David and Addie, who fail to realize the seriousness of the situation. Increasingly, Gus withdraws into an old, decaying house nearby, where he feels more secure. Seeking companionship beyond that of his playmates, he purchases a parakeet, names him Charlie, and tries to teach him to speak. Gus learns much about sex, love, and death during his lonely summer: shopkeeper Mr. Ream, his best friend, dies suddenly; and his brother-in-law, Wayne, castrates the summer's herd of calves. He is angered that his father helped force him into his situation by having a son so late in life. Gradually, Gus begins to side with his nephew against the other children, and the two youngsters experience a sense of mutual understanding. From that breakthrough comes a strengthened relationship between Gus and his playmates, who suddenly find the idea of his being an uncle unique.