In 1881, George Kracha, a Slovak peasant from a small village in the Austro-Hungarian empire, begins his journey to immigrate to America via Budapest and then the ports of Bremen. He leaves his wife, sister, and mother behind and carries with him instructions to meet his brother-in-law in northeastern Pennsylvania coal country. He is aware of the dangers posed by American thieves and murderers who prey on hapless Slovak immigrants, but his “taste for whisky” and “dark women” present the first obstacle on his voyage. Aboard the ship bound for the U.S., he falls for a dark-skinned, plump woman named Zuska Mihula. He spends most of his money on a birthday party to woo her, despite the presence of her husband, John Mihula. When Zuska rebukes his advances, Kracha is left with a mere fifty-five cents in American money.
The novel opens by introducing the major character of Kracha, and Bell immediately highlights both Karcha’s positive characteristics and his negative ones. He is a determined and occasionally savvy individual who braves the long trip to America alone, and he is aware of the hardships associated with the journey. Yet Kracha is also tempted by short-term gratification, as shown by his efforts to seduce Zuska despite being a married man.