53 pages 1 hour read

Roland Smith

Zach's Lie

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade

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Summary and Study Guide


Zach’s Lie (2001) is a critically acclaimed young adult thriller by American author Roland Smith. The novel explores themes of identity and the importance of family, truth, and trust. Smith is a New York Times bestselling author and has written over 20 young adult novels. Zach’s Lie won the Nevada Young Readers Award, and the American Library Association chose it as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Smith’s novel Jack’s Run (2007) continues the story of Zach’s Lie , as Aznar continues to pursue the family as his trial approaches.

This guide uses the Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 2003 reprint edition for citations.

Plot Summary

The novel is told in the first-person past tense from the perspective of the protagonist, 13-year-old Jack Osborne (later Zach Granger), with shifts into third-person past tense. It is divided into three parts.

The novel begins in Jack’s hometown before his family is forced into the Witness Security Program (WITSEC) after his father, Neil, is arrested for drug-running. Jack, his sister Joanne, mother Patricia, and father Neil have a happy family life, though his parents often argue. Neil is an ex-Navy fighter pilot who started his own small airline company that begins to fail, causing him to fall into debt. Drug boss Alonzo Aznar pays Neil’s debts, and unbeknownst to his family, Neil uses his plane to run drugs for Aznar.

After Neil is arrested, Aznar’s men hold Jack, his mom, and sister at gunpoint to threaten Neil. The Federal Drug Enforcement Agency arrests Neil, who offers to give them information on Aznar in exchange for keeping his family safe. They enter the Witness Security Program and move to the small, remote town of Elko, Nevada, leaving behind their old lives and identities. Joanne is devastated. Although she refuses to see Neil, Jack has a final emotional visit with his father before leaving for their new life. Neil vows to make things right.

U.S. Marshals “Aunt Doris” and “Uncle Don” are the family’s handlers and help them transition into their new lives as the Granger family. Jack becomes Zach, his sister becomes Wanda, and their mom becomes Mary. They change their appearance, all wearing blue contact lenses. They relocate to a tiny home in Elko, where Mary opens a bookstore. They struggle to stave off poverty as their main source of income—their father’s airline company—is gone. Zach and Wanda are initially dismayed at the small, dusty, high desert town with its brown mountains and barren landscape. When Mary feels the family is safe, she sends a blank postcard to their attorney, signaling that Neil can give information to the DEA. Unbeknownst to the Grangers, Aznar intercepts the postcard and begins his search for the family.

Zach enrolls in middle school and meets Sam Sebesta, the school’s custodian. Sam has a workroom under the school’s stage where he keeps a punching bag to help troubled kids release their tension. Sam is musically talented and has composed this year’s high school musical, The Opera Ghost, based on The Phantom of the Opera. Zach nervously starts school but has trouble talking to people because he hates lying about his identity. Zach fights with Peter Short, an eighth-grade bully who likes Catalin, a pretty girl in Zach’s homeroom. Zach gives Peter a black eye and makes an enemy but earns acceptance from the rest of the school, including Catalin. Zach’s new friend, Darrell, explains that everybody in Elko knows everyone’s business, which Zach thinks will make it difficult for his family to maintain their false identities.

Zach likes Elko. He works for Sam, cleaning up an old building. Sam introduces him to Elko’s Basque community. Sam lives in the Nevada Hotel, which Catalin’s parents own and operate. Zach meets Catalin’s Basque grandfather, Benat, who runs a sheep herding operation in the mountains. Sam, Zach, and Catalin camp overnight at Benat’s mountain camp where Zach bonds with Catalin, and they become boyfriend and girlfriend, to Peter’s frustration. Zach and Darrell work as stagehands for Sam, preparing for the musical. Meanwhile, Aznar intercepts Mary’s postcard and traces it to Elko.

Zach has always journaled, a practice he learned from his father, and Zach continues his journaling in Elko, even though his writing could reveal his family’s cover story. Peter steals Zach’s journal and writes excerpts from it on the chalkboard at school.

Aznar arrives in Elko. He pretends to be a private detective and offers Peter money for information about new kids. Peter gives Aznar excerpts from Zach’s journal.

Luckily, Mary and Wanda attend a book convention in Los Angeles, and Zach is staying with Sam, unwittingly avoiding Aznar.

Zach realizes his compromising journal is missing. He searches his Jack in the Box (where he keeps the journal) and finds Neil’s journal, which contains incriminating evidence against Aznar. Peter blackmails Zach with Zach’s journal, saying he will expose Zach’s identity if Zach does not break up with Catalin. Zach, frantic, cannot reach Mary or his handlers. Peter decides to take Zach’s information to Aznar, and Aznar takes Peter prisoner.

Sam, worried about Zach, reads Zach and Neil’s journals. Sam worked for the KGB and lost his family because of it; he defected to the US years ago. Sam urges Zach to trust him. He contacts Zach’s handlers, who intercept Mary and Wanda in L.A. Sam takes Zach to the sheep camp for his safety, but Aznar finds them. He holds Catalin and Benat hostage and demands Zach and Neil’s journals in exchange for Catalin. Sam secretly hid Neil’s journal inside the Jack in the Box in his workroom at school, and they all travel there together. When Aznar unlocks the box, Zach releases a trapdoor with the punching bag on top of it. Aznar falls into the trap and is incapacitated. Zach, knowing he must leave Elko, thanks Sam and asks him to tell Catalin the truth.

In a letter to Catalin, Zach, now Mack, writes that he misses her, though he cannot contact her again. Zach had used a toy, a wooden astronaut his father built for him named Commander IF, as an imaginary friend to help him through the trials he experienced in Elko. Now, he puts Commander IF in the letter to Catalin as a token of his affection. As the family flies away to a new life, they joyfully discover that their copilot is Neil.

Related Titles

By Roland Smith