In 1930's Germany, still several years before World War II began, Hitler was already beginning to cause problems for Jews. Karl Stern is entering his teen years, a thin unathletic young man who is beat up by boys at school who know of his status as a Jew. When he meets famous boxing champion, Max Schlesing, at an art gallery show at his father's gallery, he is offered boxing lesson in exchange for a painting. Karl is excited about this and takes Schlesing's advice to heart. He pushes himself to do push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and a 50 minute run each day, something that is difficult at first, but becomes easier over time. While Karl's body is being transformed, Germany is also undergoing a transformation. Stricter rules and regulations are being imposed on Jews and the Sterns are very aware of their reduced means. Food is scarce, Karl's uncle has been taken to Dachau, and Karl is kicked out of school for being a Jew. The one thing Karl is able to focus on is his training. He is also encouraged by his reading which shows that there are a number of successful Jewish fighters. This shows that the Aryan race is not truly superior in everything. Jesse Owens' Olympic medals highlights the successes of other races as well and gives Karl a bit of hope in a very dark time.
Although much of this novel is about Karl's boxing and his passion for this sport, it is also about Germany at this time in history. Through Karl's eyes we are able to see how young Jews felt and the experiences they had in their formative years. As the novel progresses things continue to get worse for the Sterns, eventually taking away the one thing Karl relies on.