Long before microwave ovens and TV dinners, before tract homes and sprawling subdivisions, before America became a drive-through society wedded to the information superhighway, life went on—though many today can't imagine how. It is during this seemingly quiet time that we meet a young Sam Hynes and, through his eyes, glimpse a bygone way of life that—as the specter of World War II begins to infiltrate a nation through newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts, and telegrams—was already receding into history.
As Hynes pieces together his "scrapbook memories"—photographs, smells, old letters, fleeting glimpses of the past—an extraordinary living, breathing testament to how things used to be unfolds before our eyes. We see Sam spend a summer on a farm, exploring the mysteries of sex and death vis-á-vis the rituals of farm life. Then, a snapshot reveals a newly formed family standing on a Minneapolis street corner—a family led by his proud and private father, whose ethics and morals are rooted in self-sacrificing Christianity, and by a stepmother who can never replace the mother Sam lost.
We see the daily goings-on in a typical less-than-affluent American home as Sam grows up in a modest house provided by his father who never had one of his own. There is frugality and a sense of belonging while happy memories of Christmases and Easters intermingle with less cheerful memories—a father running through the streets to escape a striking mob, a schoolmate's father gunned down in his driveway.
Along with the danger of mobsters, his father's struggling, and the perils of childhood itself, Sam begins to see a new danger: a war is heating up. For a while, life goes on as usual. But as we see the wide-eyed excitement of young boys expectantly awaiting for their first glimpse of a naked woman in the movies, light dancing across their faces as they sit in a darkened theater, a shadow falls over America. All the neighborhood boys begin leaving for war and a way of life fades into history.
But through it all, we see a truly American boy. One who, as he stands on the tallest building in Minneapolis and looks out over the country of his youth, prepares to go to war and make his mark on the world—just as he did when scrawling his name on a sidewalk years before.