Lalinka is a ten-year old girl who lives in Vilna, Poland with her family, in 1939. They have a nice house and garden and are very happy. She loves school and is a smart girl. But one day, the Russians, still at peace with the Germans, invade her border town and arrest her family. Lalinka loses all her photos and must pack her bags with only her clothes. Her grandmother, grandfather, father, mother and her are all captured.
When her uncle comes to the door, her grandmother tells the Russian soldiers, "I've never seen him before." This is so he will not also be captured. The family is taken in a truck and then lined up in the train station. A soldier tells the grandfather to get in a different line than the family. The family is separated and the grandfather gets on a different train.
The family is traveling by train very slowly. The train is for cattle, but it is now their prison. Lalinka says goodbye to Vilna, Poland and the train takes them across Russia. The people on the train are crying. There is only a hole for a bathroom, and the cattle car stinks and is very hot. They can only eat potato and cabbage soup and are never let out of the cattle car. While they stop at a station, they find out that Germany has invaded and the Russians and Germans are at war. After weeks of traveling, the family arrives in Rubtsovsk, Siberia, Soviet Union.
The town of Rubtsovsk is in the Siberian steppe. The steppe is an endless treeless plain. The town is a village in the middle of nowhere. Soldiers take the family with the other prisoners, mostly wealthy Jewish families, and they are sent to a mine for being capitalists. Together they all live in crowded schoolhouse, surrounded by endless flat land with lifeless grass on it.
The mine is gypsum, a gray white powder used for making casts for wounded soldiers in the war. About 150 prisoners live in the buildings. There is a mean soldier that gives them their jobs. His name is Popravka. The father works with horses. The mother uses dynamite in the mine. And Lalinka works on a farm. They work from dawn, and Lalinka pulls weeds from the potatoes. They miss their missing grandfather and their life back in Poland. Here they work all day, sleep on the floor, and live with the dynamite explosions from the mine. Lalinka never gets to wash her hair.
Lalinka gets a fever and is sleeping on a straw mattress when Popravka wakes her up and brings everyone out to see a storm coming. Siberian electrical storms are dark skies with violent thunder and lightning. It scares everybody, but Poprovka tells them good news, two people can go to the village to trade at the market. Lalinka and her grandmother are selected and Lalinka is very excited to go. They take a silk shirt and a French slip to trade. First the two of them have to walk miles over the steppe to the village. At the village market they trade the clothes for food. Lanlinka is very happy to get some sunflower seeds for a snack for the long walk home.
Fall comes to Siberia and the weather is soon very cold. Poland and Russia make peace with one another and the family is set free. They can move to the village but they cannot go back to Poland because of the war. But the family moves to the village and they get jobs where they can make a few rubles, Russian dollars. At first, the family cannot live in the village and they live outside of town. They do have a bed for the four of them and the mother works in the town bakery. The father works as a bookkeeper at a constuction job. Lalinka cannot go to the village school because they do not live in the village yet. She is bored and takes care of a five year old boy and looks for small lost potatoes left over at the market. The family must find a place to live in the village so Lalinka can go to school. They find a friendly Russian couple in the village with an empty room and they move in together.
The first snow comes to Rubtsovsk. Lalinka doesn't have any boots but is excited to go to school anyway. She and her mother visit the principal's office and Lalinka joins the fifth grade. She will learn another language, French or German, but there are no books for her so she will have to share. On the first day of school the classroom is very cold and the children are very serious. Going to school in Siberia is a privilege, but she does meet another girl, Svetlana, who shares her books with Lalinka.
The war in Russia is getting worse. Lalinka gets sick and has to stay home from school. The family gets bad news. Lalinka's grandfather, Solomin, has died in a labor camp in Siberia. The grandmother is very sad and leaves their small house and cries in the daytime. Big winter storms come and the snow piles up on everything, covering the house, and poor Lalinka has nothing to do or play with except a few books from the library.
More and more people are coming to Siberian villages, escaping the war. The Russian family that Lalinka's family lives with is going to have a baby, so Lalinka and her father, mother, and grandmother have to move. It's hard to find a home, but they move in with two sisters. All seven of them share one room and two beds. One day the father doesn't come home from work because he is picked up by the secret police and questioned all night, but he did not want to become a spy and is sent home.
Lalinka recovers from her illness and goes back to school. Lalinka makes friends with some Russian children. They go to see an American movie together. It's the first time Lalinka has seen electricity since she left Vilna. Lalinka's study partner, Svetlana, is jealous of Lalinka's long blonde braided hair, so Lalinka cuts it off and Svetlana becomes her best friend.
Spring comes to Siberia, and the rain and melted snow create mud, covering everything. Lalinka is enjoying playing with her new friends. When school ends for the summer she goes to work growing potatoes for the next winter. The room they are living in becomes too crowded and hot in the summer, so the family looks for a new home again. This time they find a hut, a very small house, with no windows and a dirt floor. But they move in and fix it up.
The summer becomes very hot and kills the potatoes in their garden. Typhus, a deadly disease, was killing many villagers, but the summer wasn't all bad. Lalinka goes to see an American movie again and learns all the parts and sings all the songs. Lalinka spends the summer working on farms and construction sites. In September the family gets a letter from their uncle in America. He sends them $50, which they exchange and buy food for the coming winter. Then the father gets another letter. This one orders him to join a work team in the war against Germany. The day her father leaves to go back to Europe and work is the worst day of Lalinka's life.
The next winter is really difficult for the family without a father. Lalinka starts stealing wood for fuel and searching for tiny potatoes left behind by others. There is a deadly flu epidemic and Lalinka's mot her almost goes crazy when Lalinka gets the flu. But, luckily, it is not too serious. It is soon her birthday and her mother throws a birthday party to try and cheer her up. She gets some gifts, which are all food. She likes the food. Her mother says, "We laughed today. We were happy over an apple and a piece of meat...Life goes on. Someday it will be better."
They get no word from the father for months. Finally, he writes a letter telling them that he is ok. The war news is very bad. The Russians are suffering, but the rumors about the Jews are even worse. One day, when food supplies are very low, Lalinka takes a 30 ruble bill to school to pay for school lunches and loses the bill. She doesn't want to go home and face her mother but cannot find it and has to go home and tell her. A few days later she decides to work doing knitting and embroidery. Her mother doesn't want her to, but Lalinka insists. She tells everyone she knows that she will work for potatoes or a cup of flour or a little bit of milk. She knits a sweater for a woman's baby and is very proud of the milk and potatoes she earns. Still, the winter is hard and the family has to burn any extra walls in their hut to stay warm.
Lalinka asks a rich woman, Marya, for work. The woman hires her to make a sweater using an old machine-made skirt for wool that is dirty and torn. She knits all the time, while studying, while reading, while cooking, and in the dark. Finally it is finished and Marya comes to pick it up. But Marya has gotten fatter through the winter and no longer fits the same size as before, so poor Lalinka has to spend an extra two months finishing the sweater.
In the winter it is so cold that the children walk to school holding each other in a line to protect each other from the wind. But there is one place where she escapes Siberia, the library. She develops a love for Russian novelists and poetry. The hut becomes too cold and the family has to move again. This time they move in with one of the directors of the tractor factory, and they take care of him and are paid in food. His name is Yosif, and he has a radio so they can listen to news and music.
Lalinka joins a speech contest at school. She memorizes a poem by Pushkin and asks her teacher, a cold woman, to let her join the contest. She practices constantly, in front of her friends and relatives and neighbors. That summer, Yosif's wife comes back and the family has to move again. This time they live with a young couple and a baby. The baby is Lalinka's best audience. On the day of the contest Lalinka picks out her best dress and runs to school, but at school her teacher tells her she must also wear shoes. So by the time Lalinka runs home and back to school in her mother's shoes, she is sweaty and tired and hot, but still has to get up on stage and perform. She performs badly, the words are there but she is too tired to give them feeling. She earns her teacher's respect but another girl wins the contest.
Lalinka goes to a rich man's house asking for a pair of shoes until he finally sells her a pair. There is a new school in the village for the people working at the factory and Lalinka gets into it and starts studying Russian culture from some very good teachers. She makes some nice friends. Winter is coming again and, again, the family doesn't have enough food. The mother's job is changed from the bakery to a construction site where she is paid less for harder work, so Lalinka starts working in a dressmaking shop. One day Lalinka is walking home from the shop and is caught in a violent storm. The sky is black and the wind blows her sideways. Many people die in these kind of storms but she hears her mother calling for her and can follow her voice to safety.
That winter Lalinka is thirteen years old. She becomes more and more Russian and less and less Polish Jew. Her job at the dressmaker's is too little so she works in the market selling things. She is selling books, which is difficult because she loves them so much, and realizes the people only want them to roll cigarettes into. She can't believe that. She loves books and school. She wants to be the editor of the school newspaper.
Even in this land of misery, Lalinka falls in love with a boy named Yuri, but he already has a girlfriend and everyone is jealous of her. Lalinka works at the school newspaper and walks by Yuri's house, but while she is chasing Yuri, another boy, Shurik, is chasing her. There is a costume party at school but she doesn't have a costume. She asks for a costume at a theater but no one helps her. Finally she borrows a dress and Shurik takes her to the party. Yuri's girlfriend is the queen of the ball, wearing the same costume that Lalinka wanted to borrow from the theater.
German prisoners start arriving from the war. The prisons are over-filled and the prisoners are dying like flies, but everyone still hates them. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrenders. But the news from Europe was still not good. The Germans had killed millions of Jews in concentration camps. The family gets news that everything in their house has been stolen. In August, when the war with the Japanese is over, they receive news from her father, saying that he would not return to the village, and that they should meet him in Poland. He had visited their home in Vilna and says that another man, the chief of the secret police in Vilna, is living in it. Lalinka wants to stay in Siberia. She has forgotten her Polish past, but her mother has only one need, to go back to Poland. Soon they receive orders to go back to Poland.
There will be another speech contest at school, but this time Lalinka can't enter because she must go back. She says good-bye to all her friends. She wants to cry but does not. The people from Poland who have survived through the past five years meet in the village for the trip back to Poland. They must again travel by cattle car but it is not a sad journey like the first. But when they get to Poland they find many Polish people at the station throwing rocks at the cattle cars and yelling, "Go back to Siberia! You dirty Jews!" All their dreams of going home were different than the reality. At the station in Vilna, they meet their father and hug and kiss and cry. In their whole family, only the four of them have survived the war.