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The book follows Rodriguez's early life as it revolves around language and education and portrays how those factors contributed to his transition from childhood to adulthood. In the book's prologue, Rodriguez refers to his work as a "middle-class pastoral" in which he "sings the praises of [his] lower-class past" while reminding himself how education has assisted with the separation from that past. It is his coming-of-age story, he notes, "the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer to discover the bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story."