Sepetys is unflinching in her portrayal of a family taken from their home in Lithuania in 1939 as part of Stalin’s genocide of the Balkin states: Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. The story begins as fifteen-year-old Lina sits down to write a letter to her cousin before bed: “They took me in my nightgown.”
Under soviet occupation, condemned for being anti-Soviet, Lina, her mother, and brother are moved with other captives from labor camps to farms in Siberia where they must work in order to receive pitiful rations. Along the way they are starved, brutalized, and murdered.
Lina loves the art of Edvard Munch and had planned to attend art school. She sketches in secret, documenting the brutality around her. She also sketches coded messages she hopes will reach her father who was separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. She hopes he is alive and wants to let him know his wife and children are alive.
The torturous journey these people endure is agonizing and their acts of compassion and bravery to save each other, along with their human failings under the most extreme circumstances, feels genuine in a heartbreaking way.