In Holland, poor-but-industrious and honorable 15-year-old Hans Brinker and his younger sister Gretel, yearn to participate in December's great ice-skating race on the canal. They have little chance of doing well on their handmade wooden skates, but the prospect of the race and the prize of the Silver Skates excite them and fire their dreams.
Hans' father is sick and amnesiac, with violent episodes, because of a fall from a dike and cannot work. Mrs. Brinker, Hans and Gretel must work to support the family and are looked down upon in the community because of their low income and poor status. Hans and Gretel learn that a famous surgeon, Dr. Boekman, might be able to treat their father, but the doctor is expensive, and gruff in nature following the loss of his wife and son. Eventually, Dr. Boekman is persuaded to examine the Brinkers' father. He diagnoses pressure on the brain, which can be cured by a risky and expensive operation involving trephining.