Thirty years ago, in January, the wind is howling in the small town of Hanover, Nebraska. The houses look haphazard and temporary, and the main street is frozen solid. It’s midday, so the street is mostly empty, save for a few countrymen and their wives. A little Swede boy, age five, sits on the sidewalk in front of one of the stores, crying for his kitten, which has run up a telegraph pole. He waits for his sister to return from a doctor’s visit.
Willa Cather’s opening lines describe the power of the land by emphasizing the smallness of human endeavors—the houses that cannot withstand the forces of nature. The land is clearly newly settled and hasn’t yet been tamed. The people who inhabit the space are still paving the way as pioneers.
His sister finally approaches. She’s a tall, strong girl with a serious face, and she walks quickly and resolutely, not noticing her brother until he pulls at her coat. She reprimands Emil for going outside when she told him to stay in the store and asks him what’s the matter. Emil responds that a man put his kitten outside, and a dog chased her up the pole. His sister, Alexandra, calls for the kitten, but she refuses to come down. Alexandra resolves to go and see if she can find Carl Linstrum to help.
Even as a young girl, Alexandra is serious and practical. Her strong body seems to be built to farm the land, and she’s not easily distracted from her goals. It’s clear that she truly cares for Emil, however, since she softens enough to help him with his kitten. She works to protect him, ordering him to stay in the store where it’s warm. She is built to work the land and face the elements; but she protects him from doing the same.
Alexandra removes her veil to wrap around Emil, and a traveling man remarks on what a fine head of hair she has. Alexandra gives him a look so severe that he drops his cigar on the sidewalk and heads off to the saloon. Meanwhile, Alexandra hurries to the drug store to find Carl, and he returns with her to the pole where Emil’s kitten is.
Alexandra dotes on Emil, exposing her own head to the cold in order to keep him warm. She disapproves of the traveling man—he’s clearly not working and gives in to the temptation of drinking in the saloon. His comment on Alexandra’s hair also reflects a different type of temptation, in that he finds her to be an attractive girl. In any case, Alexandra has no patience for his frivolous behavior. That she scorns and the man and goes to find Carl suggests her preference for Carl.
Carl says he’ll have to go up after the kitten and heads into the depot to get some spikes to strap onto his feet. When he returns, Alexandra watches him anxiously as he climbs to the top of the pole to retrieve the kitten. Carl hands the kitten over to Emil, telling him to go into the store to get warm. Carl asks Alexandra whether she’s seen the doctor, and she replies shakily that she has—the doctor has said that her father can’t get well. For a moment, she and Carl stand in silence, and then Carl turns away to see to her team of horses.
Carl and Alexandra’s silent understanding demonstrates their strong bond. Carl also treats Emil as if he is his younger brother as well, rescuing Emil’s kitten and urging him to get warm. Alexandra’s father’s illness also hints at some of the hardships of working the land. Although we don’t know the nature of his illness, it’s likely that the work has been tough on his body.
Alexandra enters the store and finds Emil playing with Marie Tovesky, a pretty little Bohemian girl from Omaha. Marie is dressed in an expensive outfit of red cashmere and wears a white fur tippet around her neck, which Emil fingers admiringly as she plays with his kitten. Alexandra allows them to play for a while, until Joe Tovesky comes in to pick up his little niece. He shows her off to his friends, who tease her and ask her to choose one of them for a sweetheart. Marie takes this all with good nature.
Even as a child, Marie is extremely loveable. She is kind to everyone and knows how to handle a crowd. She doesn’t seem upset that Emil is touching her white fur or that all her uncle’s friends are teasing her. Even as a youngster she is treated like a pretty object. This early scene also suggests a certain connection between Emil and Marie.
When Joe’s friends give Marie a bag of candy, she asks to be let down so that she can share some of it with Emil. Her uncle’s friends tease Emil about this as he tries to hide his face in his sister’s skirts, and Alexandra scolds him for being such a baby. Carl enters the store to let Alexandra know that the wagon is ready, and he carries Emil out into the straw in the wagon. Emil sleepily informs Carl that he was very good to rescue his kitten for him and says that when he gets big, he’ll climb and get little boys’ kittens for them too.
Marie also demonstrates her generous nature by sharing it with Emil—again suggesting a connection between them. Emil admires Carl’s self-sacrificing behavior in retrieving Emil’s kitten for him, and Emil vows that he, too, will be self-sacrificing when he is older, without understanding how difficult it might be to overcome adult temptations.
As Carl and Alexandra ride into the cold dusk, the remaining light falls upon their faces, revealing both Alexandra’s eyes—which seem to be looking uncertainly into the future—and Carl’s eyes, which are already looking into the past. As they ride, the town vanishes behind them, and the prairie lands swell before them, with homesteads few and far apart. The land seems to overwhelm all traces of human society that are struggling to survive on it. Carl’s bitterness stems from his belief that men are too weak to make any sort of mark on the land, which only wants to be left alone.
Alexandra already reveals herself to be the true pioneer in the book, with her forward-looking eyes. She has the ability to place herself in the future rather than the present or the past, and this gives her the capacity to work hard for something better. Carl, on the other hand, is focused only on the land as it appears in the moment. He sees that it currently overwhelms all human society, and he cannot imagine that anything will change in the future.
Carl asks Alexandra about her family, and she expresses uncertainty over what will happen after her father dies. She wishes that they could all go with him and “let the grass grow back over everything.” Carl offers to come over and distract her father from his illness with his magic lantern, an early type of image projector. Alexandra seems cheered by this, and she drops Carl off at the Linstrums’ homestead before riding on towards home.
Even in Alexandra’s despair, she doesn’t struggle against the land. Instead, she expresses the wish that the land could just take over once more. She has the ability to farm the land because she is able to surrender herself to it and doesn’t choose to fight instead.