Carol Milford, a student at Blodgett College in Minneapolis, walks to a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. The narrator uses the opportunity to observe that the spirit of rebellious youth locked inside this girl is all that remains of the pioneers that once ventured across the prairie. Blodgett College is small and conservative but Carol excelled and was driven to join progressive societies, play sports and participate in dances. She is pretty with dark hair, flashing eyes and conspicuously slim compared to her stocky classmates. Though she tried her hand at everything from music to writing she was forced to admit that she had no innate talent for anything in particular. As graduation loomed she anticipated earning her living. Her parents were dead, her father's inheritance was spent and her only relative was a dull sister married to an optician in St. Paul. A course in Sociology with a handsome professor convinces her to become a reformer. On a class trip to a stockyard one of her classmates, Steward Snyder, hints that she would make him a good wife because her natural inclination toward sympathy would bolster his law career. Instead, Carol resolves to find a little prairie town and improve it with culture and beauty. Carol's father was from New England and she had enjoyed a joyous and whimsical childhood in Mankato near the Minnesota River - an area that resembled a New England village. Her father let her read whatever she wished. Her mother died when she was nine. Her father moved the family to Minneapolis where he died two years later. Carol, raised by her older sister, wanted to be different from the people she observed hustling through life. Though she is invigorated by the thought of reforming a small town she believes that like many of her classmates she will need to earn her living by teaching. An English professor, however, advises her to study library-work. At the final soiree of the year, Steward Snyder pleads with Carol to marry him and become the perfect housewife. She protests that she needs bigger things in life. She spends a year in Chicago studying library work. While in the big city she brushes up against the bohemian lifestyle that both thrills and discomfits her. She obtains a job with the public library of St. Paul where she is not unhappy but not stimulated. During the three years that Carol works at the library many suitors try but fail to capture her attention until she meets Dr. Will Kennicott.
Carol meets Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, a solid man in his mid-thirties, at an informal dinner party given by a friend of her sister's. He admits that though he studied in the Twin Cities and has visited New York he prefers life in a small town where he can hold some sway and know the people. He encourages her to express herself and asks about her life. Before they part he asks permission to see her again and she assents. During their courtship, Carol finds his boyishness attractive. On a trip to Mendota, the old mansion of General Sibley, they discover their common American past and vow to make the country everything past generations had dreamed. He extols the values of Gopher Prairie and its residents and beseeches her to come to the town and give it some culture. "We're ready for you to boss us," he states. He pulls her close and proclaims his love for her. He shows her some photographs of Gopher Prairie - a lucid lake that impresses her and another of a poor farmer's wife holding a baby. He embraces her.
Carol and Will Kennicott marry and, after a honeymoon camping in the mountains of Colorado, take a train to Gopher Prairie. On the way Carol notices the tired and uninspired people - farm families, salesmen, workmen - who ride in the unfurnished cars. She despairs that these people are peasants with no inclination toward culture or beauty; Will counters that the advances of the age - the auto, the railway, the cinema - are bringing the country together. Carol wonders if the prairie will always be a land of uncouth pioneers but, looking at the landscape, she decides that there is hope. Carol becomes apprehensive as the train draws near her new home. She reminds herself that Will is a good man and Gopher Prairie, with a population of three thousand, must be better than the smaller towns they've passed. When the town comes into view, however, she realizes that it is merely a larger version - low wooden houses, a red grain elevator and some church spires are the only things that separate it from the vast prairie. She is seized by a sudden urge to flee. A large group of Will's friends are at the station to meet them and overwhelm Carol with their clamor. One of the men, Sam Clark the hardware dealer, gives them a ride home. As they drive Carol looks at the ugly little town and Will, catching her thoughts, assures her that life is free in Gopher Prairie is free and the people are wonderful. She thanks him for understanding. The house is simple and sad and crudely furnished. Neither one of them remembers that he intended to carry her over the threshold. She resolves to improve the house and takes comfort in her husband's strength and confidence.
Will soon departs to check on his office and Carol is disappointed at the speed with which he reenters the world of men's affairs. Overcome by the dismal house, Carol goes to the bedroom window hoping for a picturesque view. Instead she sees the clapboard side of a church and a broken Ford delivery wagon. Feeling mildly insane she flees the house. As she walks, she wonders which of the ugly houses will mean something to her in six months and she ponders over a grocer's poor display of pumpkins. Parenthetically the narrator tells us that the grocer, Mr. Frederick F. Ludelmeyer, observes her, knows who she is, likes her legs but thinks her suit is too plain.
It takes Carol only thirty-two minutes to see the whole town; the dearth of greenery and the town's exposure to the prairie saddens her. She sees Dyer's Drug Store, her husband's second story office, The Rosebud Movie Palace, Howland & Gould's Grocery, Dahl & Oleson's Meat Market, a saloon, a tobacco shop, The Bon Ton Store Haydock & Simmons', Axel Egge's General Store, Sam Clarke's Hardware Store, and other shops that similarly fail to impress her. She notices that the two auto garages are the busiest places in town. Depressed by the shabby, haphazard town she quickly returns home where she tells her husband that she finds the town interesting.
A young farm girl named Bea Sorenson arrives in Gopher Prairie on the same train as Carol. She is looking for work as a maid. After visiting her cousin - who tells her that she will never earn six dollars a week unless Dr. Kennicott's new bride is willing to pay it - Bea walks around the town (at the same time as Carol) and finds everything exciting and beautiful. She decides to stay no matter what wages she earns.
At a welcome party is held at the large house of Sam Clark and his wife Carol fears the group's scrutiny but Sam, boisterous and affable, takes her under his wing. Will introduces her to the group - Harry and Juanita Haydock, Dave Dyer, Jack Elder, Luke Dawson, Nat Hicks, Chet Dashaway and their wives. Will also makes it a point to mention that the president of Velvet Motor Company in New England, Percy Bresnahan, is from Gopher Prairie. During her conversations with the group Carol claims that she will like the town very much. Several people remind her that Percy Bresnahan grew up there. Juanita Haydock invites her to join the Jolly Seventeen, a ladies bridge group, and is surprised to learn that Carol has never played bridge. Carol tries to be witty and shocking and succeeds in winning over most of the group. Soon, however, dullness settles over the party that Carol realizes in the norm in Gopher Prairie. Petty gossip among the women and sports and cars among the men dominates the conversation until Sam Clark, feeling his duty as host, calls for some stunts. Everyone, it seems, can do something; recite a poem or singing a song but, as Carol soon learns, that's all they can do. Over the course of her first year in town she hears each person's stunt many times over. Soon the party divides into men and women and Carol, bored by the homemaking talk of the matrons, boldly joins the men. The ancient bank president, Ezra Stowbody, is holding forth on the problems with the Scandanavian immigrants. Carol finds the men's talk as boring as that of the women. Carol ventures to ask Stowbody about labor unions and receives a vitriolic opinion from all the men. Everyone leaves after the meal. On the way home Will cautions her against shocking topics and, noticing that she is hurt, tells her that she was well liked. When she asks if he cares that the group thinks her flighty he says no because she is his soul. He carries her over the threshold of the house.
Early the next morning Will takes Carol on a prairie chicken hunt in order to show her the countryside. Instead of his beloved car they take a horse and buggy - so they can go out in the fields. As Carol watches her husband lovingly prepare his hunting equipment she realizes with pleasure that he has a keen and creative interest something. They drive far out into the prairie until the dog hits a scent at which point they abandon the buggy to tromp through the fields. After Kennicott bags two birds they continue to the Rustad farm where they are given milk. After they leave Carol wonders aloud if the Scandinavian farmers aren't better off than the people who live in town who subsist on them. Will takes exception and points out that the farmers depend on the town but Carol counters that the farmers pay too much for the services they receive. Will is flabbergasted by Carol's contention that a farmer could run the state as well as a city man. The rest of the day is idyllic; in the beauty of the prairie Carol finds the dignity sorely lacking on Main Street.
Without a maid, Carol and Will take their meals at Mrs. Gurrey's boarding house where Carol meets Raymond P. Wutherspoon, known as "Raymie." He explains that Gopher Prairie benefits from a great many cultured people. Carol gleans that Kennicott and the traveling salesman at the end of the table think little of the effeminate, simpering, artistically-minded Raymie, but she encourages him.
A brief announcement in the Gopher Prairie Weekly Dauntless describes Carol's welcoming party as "one of the most charming affairs of the season".
A few months into her marriage Carol is surprised to find how much she enjoys having her own home. She hires Bea Sorenson as a maid and the two quickly become friends. In town, she takes pleasure from her status as "Mrs. Doc Kennicott" and she feels welcome at every store. She enjoys the challenges of small town grocery shopping and interacting with the town children. She and Kennicott take drives in the country, go to movies and sit on the porch until the sun sets.
Still, Carol wishes for a true friend. One day Miss Vida Sherwin, the school teacher, visits. She is past her bloom and plain looking but full of energy. Vida tells her that the town needs her and Carol is quickly swept up in her reforming spirit. When Carol suggests inviting an architect to lecture Vida suggests she start with something more approachable, like teaching Sunday school. Vida also mentions the Thanatopsis Club - the women's study club. Vida explains that the members, whatever their intellectual shortcomings, are earnest. They discuss a recent book and though they disagree, Carol is relieved to find someone with which to discuss such things. Carol suggests they have tea in lieu of coffee. Carol invites Vida to supper and at Vida's suggestion extends the invitation to Guy Pollock, the town's cultured lawyer, as well. Pollack is a slender man in his late thirties who, unlike the other men in town, does not annoy Carol. She wonders why he stays in Gopher Prairie. She suggests that they form a drama club.
In November, Carol has the parlor partition removed and refurnishes the large space with Oriental touches. Everyone in town takes an interest. During this time Carol makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Bogart, her backyard neighbor, who is the town's Baptist busybody and self-appointed arbiter of morality. Her fourteen year old son, Cyrus, is the toughest member of the toughest gang in town. Mrs. Bogart visits Carol and questions her on everything from her religious faith to the cost of her new furniture. Carol is relieved when she finally leaves.
It was normal for husband's to give their wives money as they needed it but after Carol observes other wives asking their husband's for money she tells Kennicott that unless he remembers to give her money regularly she will starve rather than beg. From then on he remembers, most of the time, to give her money and Carol puts off insisting upon a regular allowance.
Although she exercises thrift in managing the household she doesn't hesitate to spend money on fancy food from the city and decorations for her housewarming party - she wants to sweep Gopher Prairie out of its malaise. She is disheartened to see how readily her guests form into the stolid formation of a committee doing business. She resolves to stir them up. She gets the group to dance and, prodded by Vida, Carol insists that Raymie sing. As he sings, however, she realizes that he isn't any good. Next, she announces a game she learned in Chicago called "Sheeps and Wolves." To the group's disbelief she makes them all remove their shoes and search about the darkened house on the hands and knees. When the lights come back on the sight of the disheveled participants convinces Carol that she is making progress. She distributes Chinese robes and leads them through a mock musical recital with combs and drums followed by a meal of exotic (to Gopher Prairie) Chinese dishes. She notices that Guy Pollock, the drab but cultured lawyer, is paying special attention to her. Eventually the group returns to its mundane chit-chat but Carol, exhausted by the effort of keeping the party going, allows them to follow their nature. After the group leaves, Kennicott congratulates her on the best party the town has seen and the Weekly Dauntless reports it a great success. The following week the Dashaways give a party where the usual stunts are performed.
Here we meet Carol, a high-minded daughter of the American mid-west. Her nave but genuine desire to improve the world first manifests itself during her years at Blodgett where she first develops a desultory passion for social reform. Her desire to makeover a prairie town not only foreshadows her eventual efforts in Gopher Prairie, they make them possible. During a period in which she is disillusioned by her work in the library Will Kennicott is able to successfully woo her where others have failed because he unwittingly touches upon the desire of her college days - to mold a town, to help people and to be someone who can effect change. Having tried Chicago and St. Paul, Carol believes that all these things are possible in a small town like Gopher Prairie. The capriciousness she displayed in college continues when Carol becomes a wife. On the train ride to
Gopher Prairie she vacillates between foreboding and hope and once ensconced in her new home she rejects the town but shows every sign of wanting to be accepted as "Doc Kennicott's" bride. As a romantic Carol tries to convince herself that Gopher Prairie is a frontier town imbued with the spirit of the pioneers. As a naturalist, however, she recognizes that it is a "junk heap" sorely in need of refinement. These chapters establish the basic struggle between Carol, who can never be still and satisfied, and Gopher Prairie, which values stasis and satisfaction above all else.