Esther experiences a number of major difficulties in the story. For one thing, she and her family are suddenly uprooted from their beautiful home in the city of Vilnius, the capital of modern-day Lithuania. As members of the privileged social elite, they're regarded with suspicion by the Soviet authorities, who see them as bourgeois oppressors.
Forcibly removed from the place they've always called home, Esther and her family are sent on a long, hard train journey in appalling conditions to the remote Siberian steppes where they are somehow expected to start a new life in this harsh, unforgiving environment.
Once there, Esther is faced with a fight for survival in a forced labor camp where she has to toil long hours in truly wretched conditions. Esther is effectively a slave in the gypsum mines—performing backbreaking work in return for very little food. It is only after Esther is released from the camp (as part of an amnesty) that conditions slightly improve.
But even so, challenges still remain. Esther and her family, so used to having servants that do everything for them, have to learn how to be self-reliant, and at first, that turns out to be very difficult for them.