For the first three years after John Bergson’s death, the homestead does well. These three years are followed by three long years of drought and failure, however, and the families on the prairie grow discouraged by foreclosures and debt. Many neighbors leave, and the Bergson boys would probably be happy leaving as well, since they lack the kind of imagination that benefits pioneers. Pioneers should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.
In order to succeed as a pioneer, it’s necessary to have a spirit of self-sacrifice. The land overpowers those who lack the imagination necessary to become pioneers and those who give in to the temptation of an easier life in the city. Lou and Oscar would give in to this temptation if it weren’t for Alexandra.
During the second summer of drought, Carl finds Alexandra in her garden, where she had gone to dig sweet potatoes. When he finds her, however, she’s admiring the land before her, the warm sun and summer sky. Carl informs Alexandra that the Linstrums have made up their minds to go away to St. Louis, where Carl’s father has a job lined up in a cigar factory. Carl plans to learn engraving with a German engraver there before trying to get work in Chicago.
Alexandra is the only character in the book who ever seems to admire the land without fearing it. All the same, she is dismayed when the land’s power overcomes her ties to those she loves best—including her father and Carl.
Alexandra accepts the news sadly, and Carl expresses his distress at running off and leaving Alexandra to face the worst of the farming difficulties. He says that he was never really any help to her. Alexandra smiles at this and says that Carl helped by understanding her and her brothers and Mrs. Bergson. She and Carl agree that their relationship is special because they both felt the same way about things like homesickness, and they’ve both liked the same things together, like hunting for Christmas trees and ducks. Carl promises to write to her for as long as he lives.
Carl recognizes Alexandra’s spirit of self-sacrifice and regrets running away for an easier life. Alexandra and Carl’s strong bond is also overcome—at least for now—by the harshness of the land, as Carl’s family is forced to move away and Alexandra stays behind. However, the understanding they share—their homesickness and their empathy for wild things—survives.
Alexandra worries that Lou and Oscar will become even more discouraged when they hear the news, and Carl offers not to mention the Linstrums’ departure to them. Alexandra responds that she will tell them herself, however. She and Carl walk together down the potato rows, heading back towards the homestead. She says that she will only have Emil with her now.
Alexandra leads a lonely life, and her statement that she will only have Emil with her now reveals both that she is not very close with the rest of her family and the degree to which she is dedicated to and focused on Emil.
Lou and Oscar sit down moodily to dinner. They have grown to become more like themselves over the years, with Oscar becoming more and more attached to routine and regularity, and Lou growing flightier. They work well together and have always been good friends, with one seldom going anywhere without the other.
Lou and Oscar have a strong bond with each other as well, yet they continuously grow apart from Alexandra because they lack her imagination and desire to innovate. These differences only grow with age.
Alexandra opens the discussion by mentioning Carl’s news, and Lou and Oscar jump in to argue that they too should quit. They mention that many of their neighbors are leaving, trading or selling their land to a real estate man, Charley Fuller. Alexandra argues that Fuller has the right idea and will someday be a rich man because of all the land he’s gathering now. Alexandra also says that they should hold on to the land on their father’s account. She asks their mother, Mrs. Bergson, what she thinks, and Mrs. Bergson begins to cry, saying that she doesn’t want to move again. Lou and Oscar storm out of the kitchen, angry that Alexandra has turned their mother on them.
Lou and Oscar are tempted to quit the land, as their neighbors are doing. Alexandra, however, looks at the situation from a larger perspective, recognizing that the situation was even worse when John Bergson first moved to the prairie and that it will likely improve again. Again, her gaze is the only one set far into the future—she is willing to sacrifice her present for future success, as is necessary for a pioneer. She also trusts in the value of the land.
The next day, Lou and Oscar sulk in the morning, and Alexandra encourages Carl to play cards with them in order to relieve their feelings. When evening comes, Alexandra announces that she will be taking a trip to the river country to see how the land is down there. She says that the boys can trade their land for river land if she finds anything good. She reads “The Swiss Family Robinson” aloud to her mother and Emil, and soon Lou and Oscar are listening as well, enjoying the adventures of the family in the tree house.
While Carl still lives next door to the Bergsons, he helps to repair familial tensions. He understands the different members of the family and mollifies their feelings when they’re upset. The tensions between Alexandra and her brothers, however, already foreshadow how they’ll eventually drift apart, especially since Carl is moving away. The Bergsons are implicitly compared to the Robinsons of the Swiss Family Robinson – both are surrounded by nature, both are isolated. Yet Lou and Oscar only like such situations in stories; Alexandra is willing to live it.