It tells the story of several emotionally disturbed misfits away at an oppressive summer camp in Arizona, who unite to stop a three-day buffalo hunt after witnessing the first day (the buffalo are penned so they cannot escape.) Calling themselves The Bedwetters, they sneak out of camp, and attempt to free the buffalo. John Cotton, who does not know how to drive, takes a truck and uses it to scare the buffalo into fleeing away from the killing zone. In the process, Cotton is killed, but the boys find pride in their accomplishment.
The film and novel contain examples of:
- All Psychology Is Freudian: The book makes frequent references to Freudian concepts like the id and the ego.
- Catchphrase: The Bedwetters' counselor has his own name for them - "dings", worthless animals.
- Last-Name Basis: Cotton insists on this, and the narration enforces it.
- Momma's Boy: Goodenow. The book explicitly describes this as an Oedipus Complex.
- Nightmare Sequence: The book begins with Cotton dreaming that he and the other kids are buffalo, being hunted and shot by their parents.
- Piranha Problem: One character makes a point by telling the story of a friend and his pet piranha, a vaguely charming beastie with a fondness for live goldfish. The friend was unable to keep the piranha, so he put it in a goldfish pond to spend the rest of its days feeding happily. The piranha got greedy, "turned into a goldfish gourmet," and lived entirely on the bellies of the goldfish (the tastiest part, apparently.) Then the pond's owners noticed all the belly-less goldfish floating at the top of the pond, moved the survivors to another pond, and dumped in poison. Moral: if you start something (say, eating a goldfish), better finish the job!
- Reconstruction: Lord of the Flies greatly influenced how human nature, particularly young human nature, was depicted in "serious" literature. Swarthout originally tried to go along with that trend, writing such stories as "Going to See George," in which teenagers beat a buffalo to death with tire irons and a baseball bat. This book was his attempt to reject the apathy this grimness created and affirm that even if Humans Are Flawed, we still have potential to do good deeds.
- Significant Monogram: The boys' leader John Cotton, who lays down his life to save the buffalo
- Suicide as Comedy: A timid, bullied little boy proclaims his intentions to commit suicide, and the rest of the characters mock him for it. It's a bit off-putting, especially since we're told the boy has serious psychological issues.