In Walkin’ Backward, three teenage boys walk along unused train tracks after Cooney’s mother’s funeral. Monkey is the oldest and the leader of the three. He is determined to walk them eleven miles down the tracks to an historic battle scene. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army blew up this bridge to give themselves more time to escape from the Union army, but they were in such a hurry, they wrecked two of their own trains and left the soldiers there to die. Although the kids hope to see ghosts of Confederate soldiers, Monkey wants to go because of the abandonment the train wreck symbolizes.
All three of these kids have been abandoned in some way or another. Monkey’s parents are both dead, and he gets shuttled from one foster home the next. He is never well-treated, and today is the day he plans to run away.
Cooney has terrible asthma, and relies on Ross to rub his chest and help him with his inhaler when he has one of his frequent attacks. Cooney’s mother has just died, and his father is in jail. He has absolutely nowhere to go, and Monkey wants Cooney to run away with him.
Ross is the luckiest of the three. His parents are alive and well, but Ross carries his own share of loss with him. Ross’ parents had a baby girl before Ross was born who died, and they still grieve for her.
They start off having a decent time singing old war songs, telling train robber stories, and speculating about whether or not Cooney’s mother is an angel or a ghost. As Cooney and Ross loose enthusiasm for the journey, Monkey becomes manic and insistent. He bullies Cooney so badly that Cooney has an asthma attack. He and Ross decide to turn back, and once again Monkey is left feeling abandoned.