In a small Russian town, the mysterious murder of a gentile spurs resentment and hatred towards Jews and, with the help of a sympathetic young gentile named Sergei, Rachel and her family must survive the irrational violence against her community. The year is 1903 and Rachel is a teenage Jewish girl who dreams of being a writer and has no intention of marrying until she has traveled the world. But her friends Chaia and Leah are already flirting with the boys and one of the boys, Mikhail, expresses his interest in her. When she rejects Mikhail he gets angry and tells her she will never leave their little town of Kishinev and never become a writer. Rachel's family also don't approve of her seeing boys who aren't Jewish. One day, when Rachel is out on an errand, she witnesses Mikhail being stabbed to death by his Uncle who wanted to inherit the family factory instead of his nephew. Rachel is traumatized but she doesn't know who she can report the murder to since the Uncle is also the town policeman. She decides to keep what she witnessed a secret and mourns Mikhail's death.
Sergei is a young man who dreams of being an artist but his father wants him to be a policeman like him. He is friends with Mikhail but he doesn't understand why his friend is always hanging around Rachel because Rachel is Jewish and the Jews are discriminated upon in Russia. The Jews are blamed for crowding Russian cities and towns and taking all the jobs. The next day, a policeman enters Sergei's class asking for information on what Mikhail might have been doing before he died. Sergei tells the officer that he was out with Rachel. The officer seems to think it is important that Rachel is a Jew. Sergei is distraught at his friend's death but he is also concerned with everyone's obsession over the fact that Mikhail was among Jews the day of his death. He is sure that Rachel had nothing to do with Mikhail's death but he has no proof.
Meanwhile, tensions between Jewish and the other townsfolk – called the gentiles – heighten and all sorts of nasty and ridiculous rumors about the Jews begin to spread. People begin protesting on the streets, demanding that the Jews go home. One day, Rachel gets accosted by some gentile girls and Sergei rushes to her rescue. After that incident, some of the others start whispering that Sergei is a Jew lover. Later that week, Sergei overhears a person telling his father that some Moldavians are planning to beat up any Jews they see during Easter. Sergei expects his father to do something, but his father doesn't care. Sergei's own friends participate in beating up a Jewish woman and her children and again his own father doesn't do anything to stop them. Soon, the rumors that Jews were responsible for Mikhail's death starts to spread to other cities and towns. Sergei returns to see Rachel in the Jewish community and Rachel finally tells him the truth – that she witnessed Mikhail's Uncle murdering him. Sergei promises that he will try to find a way to tell his father this information without revealing her identity. When Sergei tells his father, however, his father thinks that Rachel is just lying because she doesn't want the Jews to be blamed for Mikhail's death.
When Easter day arrives, many of the gentile men get drunk and start rioting the streets, destroying stores and homes and killing many Jews. Sergei is disgusted with his father who not only refused to do anything serious about the massacre but stood by to watch it. Sergei finally tells the governor of Kishinev what he knows about Mikhail's murder and his father finally starts to listen to him seriously but it is too late. Meanwhile, Rachel and her family seek refuge inside a Jewish Hospital after finding out her father has been killed in the rioting.
One day, a government police official arrives in Kishinev to investigate the riot. Sergei's father is in trouble because he didn't handle the situation well at all. His father is also angry at Sergei because he thinks his son is a loudmouth and is part of the reason why he's in trouble. His father goes out to drink away his anger and resentment. Eventually the corruption in the police force is completely discovered and his father is fired from his job.
Later, Rachel receives a letter from her relatives, who have heard of the Kishinev riots. Enclosed are tickets to Vladivostok and advice that they should take a train from there to Shanghai where they can board a steamer bound to America without needing identification papers. By this time, Rachel and Sergei profess their love for one another and Rachel promises she will write to Sergei. The story ends with Rachel and her family boarding a train heading for Vladivostok.
Best part of story, including ending:
I specifically liked that the story addresses a real life historical event in Kishinev, Russia, where months of anti-Semitic propaganda eventually led to the killings of many innocent Jews and resulted in few people being punished for this mass murder and society-wide insanity. The story shows how a citizens of a community can quickly turn on each other and choose a scapegoat to irrationally pin all their problems on.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Sergei finally manages to tell the governor of Kishinev the truth about who killed Mikhail. It is too late to stop the build up of hatred against the Jews but it is a brief moment of truth amid all the convenient lies Sergei's father and other gentiles were spreading.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Rachel did not want to become a conventional house wife but rather wanted to explore the world and write about her travels. I also like that Rachel was relatively open-minded as she is able to befriend Sergei who is a gentile.