On a windy January day in Hanover, Nebraska, a 5-year-old Swede boy sits on the sidewalk, crying for his kitten that has run up the pole. When his sister, Alexandra, returns from a doctor’s visit, Emil runs up to her, and she enlists the help of their neighbor, Carl Linstrum. Carl fetches the kitten and sends Emil into the store to warm up, and when Alexandra follows him in, she finds Emil playing with Marie Tovesky, a pretty little Bohemian girl from Omaha.
John Bergson, Alexandra’s father, passes away shortly afterwards, leaving the farm in Alexandra’s hands, knowing that she is more familiar with the land than her brothers, Lou and Oscar. Alexandra convinces her brothers that they must mortgage their farm to buy more land, even though many of their neighbors are moving away due to drought and hard conditions of the soil. Carl Linstrum’s family is one of the neighbors who leave for the city.
Alexandra’s premonition about the land turns out to be justified, and sixteen years after John Bergson’s death, the family farm is very prosperous. Alexandra, Lou, and Oscar have divided the land between them, and Alexandra’s farm is the most impressive of them all. She has sent Emil to university, and he has returned to help her with the farm. Alexandra has also taken in a man whom many others believe is crazy, Ivar, whom she recognizes as offering sound advice on caring for animals. Marie Tovesky has also married Frank Shabata, and now the Shabatas live on the Linstrums’ old homestead.
One day when Lou and Oscar are visiting Alexandra, Carl arrives, having come to visit the prairie. Alexandra is thrilled to see him and asks him to stay awhile. Carl, however, says he must leave soon to go prospecting for gold in Alaska. Lou and Oscar are wary of Carl’s motives in visiting Alexandra, and they are suspicious of his wandering ways. However, Carl stays for a month, and Alexandra is pleased with his company.
During this time, Emil also confronts Marie about his feelings for her. She refuses to acknowledge anything, which angers Emil, and he resolves to put off law school for a year. He decides to spend a year in Mexico instead. Meanwhile, Lou and Oscar confront Alexandra about Carl, saying that she is making a fool of herself by spending so much time with him at her age. They do not wish for him to marry into the family farm and inheritance. Alexandra grows angry with her brothers, but Carl is unable to deal with the criticism and leaves for the coast the next day, leaving Alexandra alone, with neither Emil nor Carl for company.
When Emil returns to Hanover after his stint in Mexico, Alexandra shows him off at the French Church, where Emil and Marie finally share a kiss when the lights are extinguished. When Emil confronts Marie later, she admits that she loves him—but that she wishes he would leave her alone, since they cannot do anything about their feelings for each other. Emil resolves to depart for law school.
However, Emil’s best friend, Amédée dies suddenly of appendicitis, and his death leaves the town shaken. Emil rides away from the Sunday Mass to say goodbye to Marie before he leaves for law school, and instead finds her napping beneath the white mulberry tree in her orchard. He takes her in his arms, and she does not resist.
Later, when Frank returns home after a day of drinking, he discovers Emil’s mare in his stable, and grabs his gun to look for his wife. He wanders to the orchard hedge, where he finds the two lovers. In an unthinking rage, he aims and shoots three times, killing Emil and Marie. Ivar discovers the bodies in the morning, and he runs to Alexandra to deliver the news.
When Alexandra recovers from her shock, she resolves to do something for Frank, who confessed to the murders and is serving a prison sentence in Lincoln. She visits the penitentiary and finds Frank much changed, though she still tells him she wants to help him. Having seen the news in a newspaper, Carl returns home while Alexandra is away, and when she goes back home with him to Hanover, the two finally decide to marry, no longer worried about Lou or Oscar.