In 1939, in a French prison camp, José Garcés of the defeated Spanish Republican army raises the spirits of his fellow prisoners by telling the story of the year he was 8 years old, 1911, in a small town in northeastern Spain. He was a rascal, baffling his father, always in trouble, and in love with Valentina, a neighbor girl. On his roof top at night he sends semaphore messages to her. He writes poems. He gets them into trouble, killing her father's breeding pigeons. When the two families camp at a decaying castle, his tutor, a sympathetic priest, tells him about the most valiant men, the saints, the heroes, and the poets. Already a poet, he learns a lesson about being a hero.