On June 14, 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas settles down to write a letter to her older cousin and best friend, Joana, in her comfortable middle-class home in Lithuania. Suddenly, there is a ferocious knock at the door. It is the NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del), the secret police of the Soviet Union. They demand that Lina, her 10-year-old brother Jonas, and her mother Elena leave immediately. Though Elena begs to have until morning to gather their possessions, the officers give them 20 minutes or risk losing their lives.
In this very first scene, Lina’s life is changed forever by a banging at the door—the scene is set as one of comfort and domestic happiness, and then all that is immediately destroyed. Elena’s wish to protect her children and her willingness to cleverly negotiate with the NKVD officers is a trait that will persist throughout the novel, and continually save the lives of Lina and Jonas.