It's the long, hot summer of 1968. For ten-year-old Kathleen Slaven and her pals, the school holidays beckon. Into their run-down village in the west of Scotland arrives Tony, a real American kid, like the ones from the movies, ready to lead them into all kinds of adventure: gaining sweet revenge on their sadistic teacher Miss Grant on a trip to Ayr, discovering the unsettling secrets of 'Shaggy Island', and coming up with ways to outwit the people who screw up their lives - like the local parish priest Father Flynn.
But the world they live in is a precarious one. And while they escape by playing at TV heroes and film stars, their mothers grow old before their time on broken promises, and fathers make a living in the coal mines or 'digging ditches, in the pissing rain', often boozing or gambling the wages away while their families go hungry. In an impoverished community, suffering and violence are never far from home. And even the optimism and escapism of their years cannot protect the children from the tragedies of life.