It is a hard but loving childhood. Yan’s family carve out a modest existence – food is often so scarce they have to find edible bark and clay for sustenance. Reading novels becomes an escape for Yan, and he yearns to become a writer after hearing about a woman who was allowed to remain in the city of Harbin after publishing her first book. Working sixteen-hour shifts in a quarry, Yan’s hands become as crooked as twigs, but the satisfaction of hard physical labour and earning money to support his family proves intoxicating. Caught between his obligations as a son and a brother, and his longing for a different life, Yan eventually joins the army. He returns to find his father’s health rapidly deteriorating in the face of his desperate efforts to build a traditional tile-roofed house for each of his sons.