Joana believes “guilt is a hunter.” She is haunted by her conscience, which tells her, “It’s all your fault.”
Each of the four central characters begins their introductory chapter alluding to the force they feel controls or “hunts” them. Joana believes that guilt is a hunter because she is consumed by guilt at having allowed some of her family members to be captured and imprisoned by the Soviet military.
Joana is traveling with a group of refugees fleeing north through East Prussia to the Baltic Sea. Her traveling companions include the Poet, Eva, and Ingrid. Evacuation orders have not technically been issued, and so the group would be branded deserters for fleeing. Joana has been a deserter for four years, since fleeing her native Lithuania in 1941.
This book takes place in the last months of WWII, in January of 1945. Allied forces are closing in on German holdings in central and eastern Europe, and civilians are in danger as they must choose between punishment from the Nazis for disobeying orders, or death at the hands of the advancing Soviet Army. Many civilians have chosen to protect their own lives as opposed to listen to their government.
The group comes across a small boy (whose name will later be revealed to be Klaus) whose grandmother died in the woods the night before. Dazed by the death of only companion, he walks with the group until he spots a frozen woman who has died by the side of the road. Joana checks her pockets for useful goods, and takes the woman’s identification papers to give to the Red Cross. As they resume walking, the group hears a gunshot.
Separated from their relatives, the refugees have gathered together to create a new family out of necessity. This has allowed them to survive longer than they may have been able to otherwise. This is especially true for the very young, like Klaus, the very old, like the Poet, and those with disabilities, like Ingrid.