Ten-year-old Jim Burden, the novel's narrator and protagonist, begins his story on a train from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to Black Hawk, Nebraska. He is traveling with Jake Marpole, a slightly older "mountain boy" who worked on Jim's father's farm. Jim's parents have recently died, and Jim and Jake are moving West to live with Jim's grandparents.
Jim is like an immigrant, moving from the more developed and mountainous "old country" of Virginia to the unfamiliar, flat "new land" of the Nebraska prairie. His parents' deaths force him out of the childhood he knows.
During the journey, the conductor mentions to Jim that in the "immigrant car" ahead of him there is a European family from "across the water." In the family, a bright young girl is chattering in broken English about Black Hawk. The conductor says she is the only one in the family who knows any English. Jim later recognizes this girl as Ántonia.
Ántonia's excited chattering reveals her youthful fearlessness and spunk. Her ability to speak English shows she's a quick learner. The scene suggests that she'll be able to adapt to the new country more easily than the rest of her family.
The train arrives in Black Hawk at night. As Jim and Jake exit the train, Jim sees what must be the family, huddled on the platform, the youngest girl clinging to her mother's skirt.
The darkness reflects the family's and Jim's anxiety. Though their heritages differ, they're all strangers in a new land.
Otto Fuchs, Jim's grandfather's hired man, meets the boys at the station in a wagon to bring them to Jim's grandparents' farm. Before he falls asleep during the ride to his grandparents farm, Jim sees the Nebraska prairie for the first time. He feels "blotted out" by the wide-open spaces and the huge open sky unobstructed by mountains. He wonders if the spirits of his parents will be able to find him here, but decides not to say his prayers that night because he feels that "what would be would be."
Jim at first feels overwhelmed by the vast and unfamiliar prairie landscape. But his decision not to pray shows he already has a feeling that on the prairie, nature seems to take the proper course. In a sense, he surrenders himself to the prairie.