In 1939, Helen, an illiterate orphan of sixteen, is living on the streets of Lwow in Eastern Poland, when Stalin invades. He annexes the eastern half of the country. Helen is one of up to two million Poles deported to forced labour camps throughout Russia.
When Hitler invades Russia, the Allies persuade Stalin to release the Poles to train them as an army to fight Germany. But with no resources, the prisoners are merely let go. Helen becomes part of a huge, chaotic exodus of Poles who travel thousands of miles with no money, food or transport to Uzbekistan, then to Persia, where the army is formed. Hundreds of thousands perish on this perilous journey.
Somehow, Helen survives and is sent to a Polish refugee camp in Africa where she stays for six years. Her daughter, Sophia, is born here. Finally, as a single mother, Helen arrives by boat in Australia with her baby daughter. She speaks no English, has had no formal education and knows nobody. She puts Sophia in an orphanage. This is where the story begins.