Fourteen-year-old Allison Atwood is traveling to visit her mother in Alaska when her plane crashes near the Arctic Circle. The pilot is killed, leaving Allison stranded among ice and snow until she's found by an Inupiat trapper. He takes her to his village, which is nothing like her home in California. In the village, she learns the meaning of daily hardship and survival.
Soon Allison, the outsider, or "ice worm," comes to know people like Matu, a boy wise beyond his years, and Oolik, a girl who can't hear or speak. Before Allison continues her journey to her mother, she begins to see the world in a different way and slowly changes some of the villagers' lives as well. But when danger and disaster fall upon the village, whose voice will be heard?