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Words on Fire: Plot and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

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The following is a Plot and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for Words on Fire by Jennifer Nielsen. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.

Words on Fire, authored by Jennifer Nielsen, is a work of historical fiction aimed at middle-grade readers. Similar to Nielsen’s other standalone novels, the book features young protagonists navigating their way through oppressive environments.

The novel’s title, Words on Fire, alludes to the press ban enforced by Russian authorities in Lithuania in 1865, which made it illegal to publish reading materials in the Lithuanian language. As illustrated in the book, any discovered illegal texts were often burned to prevent further reading.

Please be advised that both the source material and this guide depict violent acts, such as whipping, beating, forced labor, torture, arson, and murder.

Plot Summary
Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

Words on Fire Plot Summary

In Russian-occupied Lithuania, the summer of 1893 marks the beginning of the story. Audra Zikaris, a twelve-year-old protagonist, is thrilled to attend her village’s midsummer festivities with her parents, Henri and Lina. Audra’s parents have always been overprotective of her, limiting her activities to their small family farm to ensure her safety.

Despite Henri’s occupation as a traveling magician, Audra senses that her parents engage in clandestine activities after overhearing their private conversations. On the night of the summer solstice, Russian soldiers storm the Zikaris farm to arrest Lina and Henri. Audra escapes and seeks refuge in the nearby forest, carrying instructions to deliver a package to Milda Sabiene in Venska.

While on her way to Milda’s house, Audra loses her way and encounters a boy named Lukas. He helps her find Milda’s residence, where Audra learns that Milda, Lukas, Henri, and Lina are all part of a covert group of book smugglers.

Milda operates an underground library and school, while Lukas delivers books, just like Henri did. Initially, Audra fails to grasp the significance of the book she was tasked with delivering, but she gradually realizes the power of language and the indispensability of books in the Lithuanian resistance movement.

Audra becomes a proficient book smuggler after practicing and utilizing her quick instincts and creativity. However, she encounters Ben, an older smuggler who disapproves of children’s involvement in their dangerous activities.

During one smuggling mission, Officer Rusakov, the soldier who arrested Audra’s parents, recognizes her and offers to cancel their deportation orders in exchange for information about the other smugglers. Audra agrees to meet him, but she is conflicted about her choices.

The group successfully delivers a wagon of books to a church, which is a significant sponsor of illegal book printing. Lukas gives Audra an alphabet book, which she uses to teach herself how to read. On their way back to Šiluva, their hometown, Audra witnesses a soldier whipping Lukas when he is caught with books. She manages to save him and they make it to Šiluva, where they distribute the new books to eager young people.

After the successful delivery, Ben brings Audra back to Milda’s to stay safe. Months go by without any word from Lukas or Ben. Audra attends Milda’s classes and develops a love for reading and writing, while Milda encourages her storytelling.

Audra reunites with Lukas at a wedding, where she is delivering a secret book. However, soldiers interrupt the celebration and set the barn on fire in search of the book’s carrier. Lukas and Audra spend the night warning villagers and hiding as many books as they can find in the forest. The soldiers burn down several houses and publicly burn all the discovered books in the town square.

To prevent Milda’s arrest, Lukas rushes to empty out her library, while Audra distracts the soldiers with magic tricks. After successfully smuggling books across the border, Audra’s luck takes a turn for the worse when she is caught by Rusakov and imprisoned for her involvement. Despite his threats and attempts to force her to betray her friends, Audra refuses to give him any information.

In retaliation, Rusakov orders her deportation to Siberia, but Audra manages to escape the prison wagon and reunites with Lukas in Venska. The two embark on a dangerous journey to Prussia to pick up a new shipment of books and successfully smuggle them back into Lithuania. Upon their return, Ben falls ill and cannot accompany Audra to Prussia as planned.

Instead, he sends her on one last mission, during which Audra and Lukas are ambushed by a couple who recognizes Lukas and wants to trade him to the Russians. In a shocking twist, Lukas reveals that Rusakov is his father. They make their way to a church in Kražiai, where the villagers are preparing to defend it against soldiers.

As violence erupts, Audra and Lukas work to help others escape with a homemade smoke bomb, but Ben ultimately loses his life. During the chaos, a soldier captures Audra and attempts to drown her, but Rusakov surprisingly comes to her defense and suffers a gunshot wound as a result. Audra and Lukas help Rusakov to safety in a barn, where they hide overnight.

Audra reunites with Lukas in Venska and together they embark on a journey to Prussia to pick up a new order of books. Audra’s quick thinking helps them to smuggle the books back to Lithuania undetected. Despite her protests, Audra agrees to move to Prussia with Milda to keep herself safe and continue their smuggling operations.

Even when Milda passes away, Audra persists in fulfilling book orders and writing newspaper articles. In 1903, Lukas surprises Audra with news of the press ban being lifted and reunites her with her parents, who he helped return from Siberia. Audra and Lukas eventually marry and share tales of their book-smuggling adventures with their children.

Throughout the novel, Nielsen portrays brave characters who learn important lessons about family, justice, and themselves. The book carriers, especially Audra, face various conflicts including battling nature, Russian soldiers, society, and their own self-doubts. Nielsen’s use of foreshadowing and descriptive language creates a suspenseful environment that mirrors the tension the book carriers experience.

Through Audra’s eyes, readers learn about Lithuanian history and geography while witnessing her transformation from a timid girl to a confident young woman who stands up for what she believes in.

Words on Fire Chapter Summary

Chapter 1

The protagonist, Audra, explains that her name means “storm” in Lithuanian and reflects on the fact that speaking in her native language is illegal under Russian occupation. She is on a mission with people’s lives at stake.

Chapter 2

Audra recalls the summer when she was 12 years old and desperately wanted to be more confident like her magician father, Henrikas. She overhears her parents discussing secret work and learns that her mother, Lina, is involved. On the night of the summer solstice celebration, they encounter a new, dangerous soldier named Officer Rusakov. Audra’s parents pack their bags and flee while Audra is tasked with delivering a package to Milda Sabiene in Venska.

Chapter 3

Audra and Lina run to the forest while Henrikas tries to stall the soldiers. Lina becomes entangled in garden wire and instructs Audra to deliver the package to Milda alone. Audra witnesses her parents’ home set on fire and her mother’s arrest. Terrified, she finds shelter in the forest and wonders if her parents have been killed because of the package she carries.

Chapter 4

After ensuring the soldiers have left the area, Audra gathers the courage to leave her hiding place. Despite her sprained ankle, she limps towards the village and is surprised to find that the midsummer festivities are still underway.

She hides when she hears a group of young people approaching, including Officer Rusakov, who promises them a reward for turning in a girl matching Audra’s description. However, he allows the group to continue with their celebrations and moves on. Later, Violeta, the baker’s daughter, finds Audra hiding in some ferns.

Chapter 5

Audra anxiously awaits Violeta’s decision on what to do next. To keep Audra hidden from Rusakov, Violeta tells her friends that she found the mythological fern blossom and urges them to go and see it. Once the soldiers have left, the young Lithuanians help Audra.

Filip, a boy from the group, provides her with directions to Venska, a village 20 kilometers away. Audra declines a girl’s offer to accompany her for fear of endangering them further. Violeta gives Audra her shawl, and another person gives her some cakes before she sets off on the forest path, unsure if she will ever return.

Chapter 6

Audra takes shelter in a thicket of trees and dozes off until sunrise after walking for a few kilometers. She makes a makeshift brace for her sprained ankle and prepares to open her parents’ package, but a nearby sound startles her, and she quickly flees.

As she continues to walk for most of the morning, Audra realizes she has lost her way. While crossing a second river with slippery rocks, she slips and falls into the water. Fortunately, a boy named Lukas helps her out of the river. He tells her that she has already passed Venska but is initially reluctant to assist her further. Audra offers to perform a card trick, and Lukas agrees to bring her to Milda as promised.

Chapter 7

Audra endures a painful ride on Lukas’s donkey without a saddle. Though Lukas attempts to make small talk, Audra remains guarded, fearful that he may be a spy. Lukas tells her a story about a girl named Rue who saves her father’s life using her cleverness. He then reveals that he is an outcast in his family and works for someone named Ben in exchange for food.

When Lukas inquires about the package Audra protected in the river, she realizes it is still a mystery to her. She becomes apprehensive when she hears Lukas whistling, fearing that it may attract the soldiers’ attention. Lukas becomes serious and demands to know if Audra is hiding something.

Audra questions Lukas’s motives and asks if he is a thief. He responds, “Not exactly,” and then speaks about the beauty of Prussia, encouraging Audra to cross the border someday. This only deepens Audra’s suspicion of him, and she decides that she wants nothing to do with Lukas and his “dangerous life” (47) as soon as he brings her to Milda.

Chapter 8

As Lukas and Audra arrive in Venska, he warns her not to stare at Milda, a woman he describes as “a bit odd.” After using a specific knock, an old woman answers the door, and Lukas introduces Audra as the Zikaris’ daughter. To Audra’s shock, Milda removes her wig, pillow, and makeup to reveal her true appearance.

Milda knows Audra’s parents and feeds her dumplings as she listens to Audra’s traumatic story. Milda assures Audra that Lukas can be trusted, but Audra is furious to find out that the package she delivered was just a book.

Chapter 9

Lukas inspects the book, and Milda asks Audra for the key to unlock it. Lukas explains to Milda that Audra doesn’t know about the books, and Milda shows her the secret library hidden beneath her house. Milda offers Audra the chance to live with her and attend her secret school, but Audra declines.

Milda warns Audra that her parents may be imprisoned or deported to Siberia, and Audra decides to stay with Milda. Milda requests that Audra deliver a book for her, but Audra refuses. Though this disappoints Milda and Lukas, Audra doesn’t apologize.

As Audra settles in with Milda, she begins to uncover the secrets of the underground library and the forbidden knowledge contained within. Meanwhile, she worries about her parents and their fate. Will she be able to help them? Will she learn to trust Lukas and Milda, or will their secrets put her in danger? The story takes an exciting turn as Audra navigates the dangerous landscape of war-torn Lithuania and the shadowy world of Milda’s secret school.

Chapter 10

Audra’s weeklong stay with Milda has been eventful, and she has witnessed the many customers who come in disguise to purchase forbidden books. Milda’s secret library and underground classroom have taught Audra much about the power of knowledge.

However, when Russian soldiers arrive at the store for a search, Audra finds herself trapped in the library. She discovers a secret tunnel and encounters a young girl named Roze who agrees to help her. Together, they journey through the tunnel to Milda’s shed, where Audra finally agrees to deliver a book for Milda.

The tension in this chapter is palpable as Audra must navigate dangerous situations to protect herself and those she cares about, adding to the overall suspense of the novel.

Chapter 11

Milda reveals to Audra the true importance of the books she is delivering. Milda’s father had been part of a rebellion against the oppressive tsarist regime, and the books serve as a way to keep Lithuanian culture and identity alive in the face of Russian censorship.

Audra becomes even more determined to complete her mission and deliver the books to the resistance. However, her plans are interrupted when Lukas returns with news that the Zikaris have been captured and are being held in the town’s jail.

Lukas hatches a risky plan to rescue them, and Audra must decide whether to join him or continue with her own mission.

Chapter 12

On the day of her delivery, Audra is determined to avoid any people on the road, but Milda instructs her to wait until it’s busier so she can blend in with the crowds. Despite Audra’s inability to read, Milda emphasizes the importance of the books, especially the one she’s delivering – The History of the Ancient Lithuanians. It contains knowledge that can change someone’s life for the better.

Milda gives Audra specific instructions to deliver the book to a man named Ben Kagan. However, on her way, Audra encounters a Russian officer who questions her. Quick on her feet, she lies and tells him she’s delivering fabric to a seamstress in the neighboring town. The soldier hands her a book in Russian, claiming it’s “a gift from the tsar” (84).

After making it to the next town, Lukas suddenly appears, having followed her to ensure her safety. He praises her successful delivery and then casually tosses the Russian book into a manure cart before taking her to Ben.

Chapter 13

The wheels of the wagon creaked as Ben drove frantically, and Audra clung to Lukas for dear life. When they finally stopped, Ben realized Audra bore a striking resemblance to her parents, who were well-known book carriers. However, Audra quickly explained that her parents were still alive, and she had a plan to rescue them.

But Ben dismissed her idea and planned to abandon the children in the next town. Fortunately, Lukas and Audra managed to hide the books in the wagon without Ben noticing. As they traveled north, Audra’s instincts kicked in, and she volunteered to scout ahead.

Her bravery soon paid off as she encountered a group of soldiers, including Rusakov, who recognized her and offered to free her parents in exchange for information about a book-smuggling boy. Audra agreed to meet him in two days with information, without telling Ben or Lukas about the deal.

When Ben arrived, Rusakov pretended not to know him and asked him to take Audra to Šiauliai with him. Despite her fear, Audra decided to keep smuggling books, and Ben commended her for her bravery.

Chapter 14

As they travel, Lukas shares the story of Rue with Audra to lift her spirits. Upon their arrival in Šiauliai, a priest welcomes them and directs them to hide the books in the stables.

Audra still struggles with her decision to continue book smuggling but believes it is the only way to save her parents. Lukas gives her a Lithuanian book to learn how to read, and the priest reveals that he knows about her parents’ work. He explains that Lina would take book orders and Henri would smuggle them in from Prussia.

Lukas emphasizes the power of books to instill hope and empower people to take action. Ben acknowledges the importance of hope but warns Audra about the dangers and difficulties of book smuggling. Despite his concerns, Audra insists on helping and convinces Ben to let her continue.

Chapter 15

Audra spends a restless night at the church, flipping through her new book and teaching herself a few words. She feels conflicted emotions as she thinks about her mother, feeling both fearful, despairing, and angry that her mother kept so much of her life a secret from her.

Suddenly, a man enters the church and warns them of an imminent search. The group quickly gathers their belongings and begins reloading the books. The man offers to take some of the books in his cart, but they must still carry the rest on foot to avoid detection. To make matters more difficult, they must split up to head to Šiluva, the town near Audra’s home.

Audra asks Ben to draw her a map using milk on some paper, and he directs her to a secret school in town where the group will meet up again. Despite Ben’s skepticism, Audra promises him that she will make it to Šiluva.

Chapter 16

The trio embarks on separate paths towards Šiluva. After hours of walking, Audra builds a fire in the forest to warm up her milk-dried map. Suddenly, she hears footsteps and readies herself with a stick. She mistakenly hits Lukas, who had been following her, until he reveals his presence.

Then, Lukas tells Audra to hide as two Russian soldiers appear and force him to the ground, whipping him with a tree branch. Audra throws a snake to distract the soldiers and helps Lukas collect his books. They find a safer hiding place, the same patch of ferns where Audra hid before.

Lukas advises Audra to check on her home while he rests, but she discovers that it has been completely destroyed and breaks down in tears.

Chapter 17

Audra and Lukas take refuge in the small barn and Audra contemplates the difficult decision she must make regarding Rusakov’s offer. Ultimately, she decides to protect Lukas even if it means losing her parents. While Lukas rests, Audra tries to make sense of a poem in one of his books, and Lukas helps her understand its symbolism, revealing that the Lithuanian resistance to Imperial Russia is still active.

Lukas also shares more about Ben’s past and his guilt over losing his friends in an uprising decades ago. He explains that this is why Ben is so protective of both Lukas and Audra. As they prepare to leave the barn, Lukas discovers a notebook hidden on one of the beams. It turns out to be Audra’s father’s notes on magic tricks, and she decides to keep it private until the day she can read it herself.

Due to Lukas’s pain, they make slow progress towards the town, and Lukas continues his story about Rue to distract them.

Chapter 18

Lukas and Audra arrive at the barn in Šiluva after an hour of walking. Ben greets them with concern, and Lukas’s injuries confirm for him that it’s too dangerous for children to be smuggling. They carry the books down to the underground library, but Audra is disappointed by the small number of books they find.

A group of young people, the same ones Audra met on the night of her escape, arrive to borrow books. They are surprised to see Audra in the library and thank her for her help, offering their assistance in return. They quickly choose their books and depart, leaving Audra feeling exhilarated by the sudden flurry of activity.

Although Audra is eager to continue smuggling, Ben decides it’s safest for her to return to Milda’s while Lukas stays in Šiluva to recover. Overhearing one of the other girls talking about writing sparks an interest in Audra, and the girl gives her a pencil and some paper before leaving.

Chapter 19

After three months at Milda’s, without any contact from Ben or Lukas, Audra’s anticipation to carry books again grows. However, as the book inventory at Milda’s dwindles, Audra spends her days observing classes and studying on her own, eventually teaching herself how to read. With each book she reads, she recognizes the importance of the smuggled books and starts writing her own stories, continuing Rue’s adventures and aspiring to be just as brave. Milda encourages her passion for storytelling and recognizes her talent for writing.

Audra convinces Milda to let her carry books again, but only to drop sites for safety reasons. Milda sends her to deliver a book hidden in a quilt as a wedding gift to a nearby church. There, she witnesses the wedding rituals and is surprised by Lukas’s unexpected appearance. They are about to dance when soldiers interrupt the celebration, and Officer Rusakov announces a search.

Chapter 20

After witnessing the soldiers’ interruption of the wedding and the search for the smuggled book, Lukas and Audra hide behind a barrel and make their way to the barn. There, Rusakov finds the book hidden in the quilt and threatens the guests to confess who brought it.

Lukas convinces Audra not to confess, but Rusakov warns that he will burn down the town if another book is found, starting with the barn. Lukas and Audra flee to the forest, where Audra feels guilty for the destruction and breaks down in tears.

Lukas reassures her and suggests they gather as many books as possible from villagers’ homes before the soldiers find them.

Chapter 21

Lukas and Audra continue their frantic book rescue mission, going from house to house to warn people of the soldiers’ search. Some households are already prepared and give them many books to bring to the hidden location in the forest.

Audra sneaks into an empty house and finds a book just as a soldier arrives to search the premises. She manages to conceal the book in her apron, but the soldier discovers more books and sets fire to the bed, taking the books with him.

Audra extinguishes the flames and flees, but encounters a girl who needs help saving her book. While running away with the girl and her book, a soldier tries to grab Audra, but she escapes, leaving the books behind.

Lukas brings Audra to the forest, where they meet up with other villagers. Lukas is disappointed that they didn’t save enough books, but he has something important to show Audra.

Chapter 22

Lukas and Audra bear witness from the edge of the forest as houses in the village burn, and other villagers are compelled to watch books being burned in the town square. Rusakov chastises the villagers, calling them “fools” and insisting that they must accept their Russian identities. An older man speaks out against Rusakov, and soldiers knock him down with a rifle and haul him away.

Finally, Rusakov orders the square to be cleared, and when he is called away, Audra resolves to rescue as many unburned books as possible. Despite burning her arm in the fire, she and Lukas are able to save a stack of books.

When the soldiers return, Audra and Lukas overhear Rusakov order his soldiers to shoot any villager who “tries to challenge” them, and then he declares that he will arrest the source of the smuggled books. Lukas and Audra rush to Milda’s to try to save her.

Chapter 23

The children hurry to Milda’s house, but they run into Roze, who urges them to save themselves. Despite Milda’s warning, Lukas and Roze remind Audra of the importance of rescuing the books to protect Milda from being indicted. Audra, however, emphasizes that Milda’s life is just as important, and they must try to save her. Lukas agrees to move the books from the secret library, and Roze offers to help Milda sneak out.

Audra uses props from her father’s bag of tricks to distract the officers outside Milda’s house. She tells them that she will exchange information about the smugglers if they can beat her trick. The officers fail to guess the right answer, but they insist that Audra must still answer their questions.

She requests to perform another trick and tries to flee but bumps into Rusakov, who drags her into Milda’s house. Inside, Rusakov and his soldiers find that Milda has disappeared, and he blames Audra for the night’s events, asking her if she is willing to save herself.

Chapter 24

In Chapter 24, Rusakov reminds Audra of their agreement, but he knows she is lying when she tells him she has no information to share. He notices the burn on her arm and squeezes the wound until she cries. Audra tells Rusakov that the villagers are innocent, but he promises to follow the smugglers everywhere and bring fire and punishment.

She condemns his actions, and he blames her for the night’s events, threatening to burn more of the village if she does not tell him where she got the book. She lies, saying she brought the book directly from Prussia, and tells Rusakov about the stash of books they rescued in the forest. Rusakov throws Audra into a prison wagon and confiscates her father’s bag, ordering it to be burned.

Chapter 25

Audra contemplates the strength she will need to overcome torture if her captors decide to use it. When Rusakov arrives with a table and chair, he confirms that the Zikarises have been deported to Siberia. He then shows Audra a metal box containing some of her parents’ belongings, including a small key.

Rusakov offers Audra a fresh start to a “law-abiding life” if she shares information about her friends. However, Audra does not know what to do.

Chapter 26

Rusakov sets a deadline for Audra to write down the names of the smugglers she knows, giving her only one hour to comply. As she sifts through her parents’ belongings, she discovers a metal box containing some of their possessions, including a small key.

She gazes at the blank paper for a long time, feeling torn between saving herself and betraying her friends. Finally, she writes down one name and falls asleep, exhausted from the emotional turmoil.

When Rusakov returns, he is outraged to see that Audra has written his name on the paper. He threatens to deport her and assures her that he will find her friends without her help.

Despite her fear and guilt, Audra believes that her parents would be proud of her for standing up to the oppressor. She also acknowledges that she will never be able to forgive herself for failing to save her parents from their tragic fate.

Chapter 27

After waiting for several hours, a soldier arrives to take Audra to the train station. As she gets into the wagon, the guard hands her father’s bag, which she soon realizes must have been a bribe from someone to help her escape. Inside the bag, she finds “pops,” small fireworks that explode on impact with solid surfaces. Along the way, she throws one inside the wagon to distract the driver. With strategic throwing, she convinces the driver they might be under attack, and he runs for safety.

Audra takes the opportunity to flee in the opposite direction. She finds a dress hanging out to dry on someone’s laundry line and creates a commotion among a group of children. When the guard arrives to ask where she has gone, she blends in with the group and then runs away.

Chapter 28

Audra attempts to make her way back to Milda’s under cover of darkness to stay safe. To motivate herself, she thinks of her friends, the books, and Lukas’s stories of Rue, now fully understanding their symbolism.

After several days of famished, exhausting walking, Audra arrives at Venska, where she discovers that Milda’s home has been burned beyond repair. She sneaks down to the library and finds all the shelves empty. Roze greets her from the top of the ladder and explains that Milda was aware of Audra’s escape plan.

Rusakov has been discharged from the army because of his extreme actions in the village, and Lukas was able to save all of Milda’s books and distribute them. The smugglers are planning to gather more books because people want them now more than ever. Roze leads Audra to Lukas’s hiding spot in the woods, promising her food.

Chapter 29

Roze leaves Audra and Lukas to continue their work at Lukas’s secret shelter. Lukas tells Audra that Ben and Milda are safe, but he must leave the next day to cross the border to get more books. Although they both know Ben would not approve, Audra wants to help him. In the morning, they set off in a borrowed wagon towards the border.

Lukas explains that there are three layers of border patrol covering over ten kilometers they must pass through when crossing between countries. To distract Audra from the gravity of the situation, Lukas reminds her of their greater purpose. They eventually arrive at a barn where they can leave the wagon and continue on foot.

They walk for many exhausting hours until they can see the dense border patrol. Audra fears crossing will be impossible but doesn’t want to turn back. Lukas promises her it will be “easier than [she thinks]” (222).

Chapter 30

Lukas and Audra carefully navigate through the forest to avoid being detected by the border patrol. As they reach the river, Audra realizes that she must climb along the underside of the bridge to cross, using the fastened rope to keep her safe from the guards’ eyes.

Once they reach the Prussian city of Tilsit, the printer informs Lukas that there are extra books that need to be smuggled. Lukas originally planned to leave Audra in Prussia, but he acknowledges that he needs her help to carry the books to a safe barn where they can pack them into barrels.

Audra reads fairy tales to find guidance in her dangerous mission.

Chapter 31

As they start their walk back across the border, Lukas tells Audra that this is only his second time crossing, and she expresses her concern about his lack of experience. Lukas admits that his fear has caused him to make “too safe” and “too predictable” decisions, and he wants Audra to help him think more creatively.

At the river crossing, Audra sets up a decoy smuggler using a spare barrel, Lukas’s coat, and rocks to distract the guards, while she and Lukas float downriver in freezing water. They successfully cross the river, empty the barrels, and continue walking throughout the night while trying to avoid being seen.

Chapter 32

As they walk, Audra reflects on how she has grown and come to understand her role in the fight for Lithuania’s freedom.

Chapter 33

After getting a ride to Šiauliai, the exhausted children get some rest in the wagon. Lukas wakes Audra up and they continue walking to Ben’s place. While walking, Lukas tells Audra about the history of the Hill of Crosses. Audra takes this opportunity to ask Lukas about his family, but Lukas only mentions that he misses his mother.

Lukas confronts Audra about not making the trade with Rusakov and she admits to being uncertain about her decision. Lukas is grateful for her sacrifice and they arrive at the Hill of Crosses that night. Lukas creates a makeshift cross from sticks for Audra to place on the hill in honor of her parents. He assures her that she will see them again in the future.

They reunite with Milda and Ben, who has a concerning cough. Ben suggests that Audra and Milda move to Prussia for their safety, but Audra refuses.

Chapter 34

Ben comes down with a terrible cold and they rest for a week before delivering the new books to a priest in Kražiai. The priest expresses hope that enough people will stand up to the destruction of churches that the tsar will inevitably order. Ben’s cough is a concern and he warns Lukas and Audra that he has a bad feeling about their next trip.

Despite his warning, they prepare to cross the border again. At the soldiers’ bunker, Lukas steals some boots to cover their tracks in the snow. Audra distracts the soldiers, allowing Lukas time to flee with the boots.

Chapter 35

They successfully cross the border and meet Milda at her new home in Tilsit. While Milda discusses her plans to convert the space for smugglers, Audra remembers a recipe in her father’s notebook and requests Milda’s help in procuring the ingredients. They make smoke bombs that could save their lives in the future.

Chapter 36

Audra and Lukas make their way across the border by disguising Audra as an old woman and placing her in a coffin in a wagon. The soldiers at the border stop them and accuse Lukas of trying to spread typhus when he claims that Audra died from the disease.

However, Lukas is able to convince the soldiers to let them go by claiming that he used to work for a Russian family and now works with the sick.

Chapter 37

Audra wakes up from her uncomfortable ride and washes off her makeup to ride with Lukas in the open. However, a couple with a rifle recognizes Lukas and ties up both him and Audra, accusing them of being book smugglers.

The couple plans to trade them for their arrested son since Lukas is “the Russians’ boy” and they will want him back. Audra pleads for their freedom, but the couple tells them that a “demonstration” is planned for Kražiai in two days as punishment.

Chapter 38

Audra is able to free herself and Lukas when the man keeping watch falls asleep. They escape on the wagon, but Lukas feels ashamed for constantly needing Audra’s help. Lukas reveals that his father is Rusakov, the man they have been trying to smuggle books to, and tells Audra about a traumatic incident from his past involving Rusakov’s involvement in the arrest of a friend’s father.

Despite this, Lukas does not believe his father is evil, just wrong. The chapter ends with the pair sitting in silence as they prepare to continue their journey.

Chapter 39

As they arrive in Kražiai, Ben is the only person there to greet them and urges them to flee the village. The children unload the book delivery with the help of Ben and the priest, while others prepare to defend the church. The priest explains that there is an order for the church to be burned. Some villagers move items from the church to safety, while others prepare to fight the soldiers.

Ben warns that it is futile to fight, but Audra is eager to help. More soldiers arrive, surrounding the church and its defenders. Ben orders the children to hide in their decoy coffin while he fights, and Audra retreats with Lukas.

Chapter 40

The children crawl to a safe spot and witness a man get shot. Audra realizes that Rusakov is standing behind her when Lukas asks his father to spare her. During an argument with his father, Lukas shares that he has never identified with his Russian identity because it made his friends fearful.

A shot interrupts their argument, and a soldier demands the villagers to surrender. Some continue to fight, while those who surrender are assaulted anyway.

The soldiers force people toward the river, where Audra realizes they will be drowned. Using one remaining match, Audra lights a smoke bomb to redirect some people to safety. However, a soldier grabs her and forces her into the cold, deep water.

Chapter 41

As Audra fights back against her captor, she feels empowered, comparing herself to Rue. However, the soldier ultimately recaptures her. Amidst the loud water, Audra overhears someone confronting the soldier, but only catches fragments of the conversation.

Suddenly, a gunshot rings out, and the soldier releases Audra, causing her to float downstream until Ben rescues her. Despite Ben’s insistence that she hide, Audra is determined to find Lukas first. When she does, she discovers him tending to his father, who was shot in the leg while trying to save her. Together, they bring Rusakov to safety in a nearby barn, and the people inside accept him after learning that he saved their lives.

Audra and Lukas spend the night with the villagers, learning about the arrests, injuries, and deaths that occurred. Audra worries that Ben may be among the casualties. Although Audra regrets not being able to save more people, many in the barn personally thank her for her help with the smoke bombs. T

he priest even calls her “the book carrier who does magic,” but Audra reminds everyone that the true magic lies within books. She encourages them to continue fighting by reading and sharing ideas for an independent Lithuania.

Chapter 42

Audra and Lukas accompany the priest back to the church to check on its condition after the attack. Lukas retrieves Henri’s locked book from Ben’s possession and gives it to Audra as instructed. Audra unlocks the book with her key and finds that it contains pages of family records.

On the last page, she discovers her mother’s name followed by Ben’s name, confirming that Ben was her maternal grandfather. After realizing that it’s safer for her to help Milda in Prussia, Audra decides to go with her.

Meanwhile, Lukas wants to help his father return home and try to make things right. He assures Audra that they will see each other again, and Audra completes the family tree by adding her name under her parents’.


Years have passed since the events at the end of the book, and Audra continues to smuggle books from Prussia into Lithuania. She often reflects on her grandfather Ben’s account of the uprising he was a part of and the resulting book ban, which drove him to feel immense guilt. Despite moments of doubt, Audra persists in her work while also writing for an underground newspaper.

Milda’s health eventually declines, and she passes away peacefully. Audra buries her as close to the Lithuanian border as possible. After Milda’s death, Audra goes to visit her grave and is surprised by Lukas, who tells her that the press ban has been lifted and she can return to Lithuania. He used all his money to buy two train tickets, and Audra is overjoyed to learn that her parents, Lina and Henri, are also there to meet her.

As they embrace in a tearful reunion, Lina and Henri thank Audra for “bringing them home.” The book ends with a flashback to the present moment, where Audra and Lukas are reading their children bedtime stories. The children inevitably ask their parents for stories about their book smuggling days, and Audra and Lukas happily oblige, telling their children about their heroic efforts to keep the written word alive.

I hope you enjoyed this plot and chapter summary for Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen! Happy reading! ❤️