Ira Wagler enters the black-clad world of the Old Order Amish on a routine, August day, as the ninth of 11 children in Aylmer, Ontario. No cars, no electricity and no telephones in the house largely define those in this Old Order, and rubber rims on buggy wheels feels progressive. Ira describes his average life as an Amish boy, living on a small farm with horses, cattle, hogs, chickens and dogs. His family cooks on a woodburning stove. He offers a child's perspective of an Amish church service during the 1960s: It lasts too long, and he just wishes it were over.
Ira eagerly starts school as a 6-year-old. In second grade, he manages to skip weeks of penmanship assignments, but is eventually found out by his teacher, Miss Eicher. Fearing a severe punishment from both her and his father, Ira is surprised when Miss Eicher only has him complete missing assignments, and then the matter is dropped, leaving a lasting impression. Ira recalls his transition from third to fourth grade: Older students pick on him, and Nicholas, an even younger student who is particularly weak and defenseless, is constantly bullied. It is a painful account of physical and emotional cruelty to a boy who came from a poor and "different" family.
Ira's father, David, is not skilled at farming. He excels at selling fresh produce and hogs. However his true gift is writing, and he cofounds Pathway Publishers, launching Family Life, a magazine for the Amish, by the Amish — even mortgaging the farm to accomplish his dream. David becomes widely known among Amish and Mennonite communities in the U.S. and overseas. Ida Mae, Ira's mother, is a stereotypical Amish housewife in charge of children, cooking and cleaning.
Life in the Aylmer community begins to change when two preachers and their families leave, along with some of Ira's friends and other families. New preachers are ordained as replacements, and they slowly enact new and stricter rules — no more plastic eyeglass frames, only wire; longer dresses; larger head coverings.
On the heels of these departures, Ira's oldest sister leaves Aylmer and joins a Mennonite congregation in Pennsylvania. Later his 18-year-old brother, Jesse, leaves in the night for Cleveland. He returns after months of pressure, but leaves again before a year passes. Ira tells about his parents' grief and embarrassment over the loss of their children.
When the next brother, Stephen, leaves, David decides it would be best for the rest of his family to move to a new place where things might be better, and his remaining children would be more likely to stay Amish. So David leaves his passion — editor of Family Life magazine — and buys a farm in Iowa.
Life is generally good in Bloomfield, with hard work and Sunday night singings, Ira's favorite aspect of Amish church life. Ira gains new insight into the ordinariness of preachers when his oldest brother, Joseph, is chosen by lot to become one — for life. Four of the men under consideration for preacher status are relieved when they are not chosen.
Ira turns 16 and enters what is known as the Rumspringa years, or "running around" years. Young people are considered adults, and they theoretically are given time to decide whether they want to remain Amish. Ira and five of his friends hang out together and continually push the limits of what is acceptable Amish behavior — sipping beer, listening to transistor radios and eight-track tape players, racing horse-drawn buggies, telling rowdy jokes.
Feeling stifled and with little to attract him to Amish life, 17-year-old Ira is drawn by the possibilities of the outside world and follows the precedent set by his siblings. He plans his departure from Amish life.
Ira runs away during the night, getting help from a young mule skinner named Dewayne to reach the bus depot. He heads for Valentine, Neb. En route, he purchases his first pair of zippered blue jeans and watches television in a motel. Having connected earlier with a ranch manager near Valentine, Ira is hired as a ranch hand. He learns the ropes from an experienced cowboy and learns how to drive a pickup. A younger cowboy named Allen introduces Ira to partying in town. Before long the five boys Ira hung out with in Bloomfield also leave and come to work on ranches near Valentine. Though Ira believes that he is spiritually lost and has no hope for salvation, the seduction of the English world is stronger, and he disregards the letters his parents send him concerning his spiritual state.
Ranch life loses its appeal after five months, and Ira misses home and returns. But life is changed for him, and he continues to make choices that divide him from his family and community. Ira and his cousin Phil bounce in and out of their communities. Together they buy a car, steal cattle to sell for quick money and steal gasoline from a farmer while church is in session. Ira's brother Titus has a diving accident, resulting in quadriplegia. The family assumes responsibility for his medical bills, yet they are unable to pay. The new editor of Family Life appeals to its readership, and they generously respond with donations totaling $84,000. Ira notes this as a reflection of Amish culture rather than the provision of the Lord.
Ira is finally baptized into the church at 21. Since Titus can no longer take care of the farm, Ira takes over, offering to work an extra year with no wages to repay his father for his absences. His youngest brother, 16-year-old Nathan, decides to leave and heads for the Nebraska ranches where Ira once fled.
Ira sets his sights on a girl named Sarah, who he courts for a couple of years before he begins to feel stifled by the prospect of becoming further embedded in Amish culture. Nevertheless, he proposes to Sarah, and breaks her heart when he has to end the relationship. Ira leaves and eventually signs on with a company from Alberta, working the harvest in Montana and Canada. With his wages he buys a pickup and fittingly names it "the Drifter."
After 10 years of torment and indecision, the love and freedom of Christ find Ira as he prays for a new life. In the end, Ira accepts the fact that he cannot commit to continuing life as an Amish man, yet also realizes that leaving the Amish will not result in the loss of his salvation.