After the death of his parents, Jim is sent to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska plains. By chance on that same train is a bright-eyed girl, Antonia, who will become his neighbor and lifelong friend. Her family has emigrated from Bohemia to start a new life farming but soon lose their money and must work hard just to survive. Through it all, Antonia retains her natural pride and free spirit. Jim's grandparents have a large and tidy farm. They are kind to him, but conventional. Later Jim becomes a scholar and Antonia becomes a 'hired girl' in town. She blossoms in the new freedom that town life offers. Jim can only taste this life vicariously through her recounting of town gossip and of the 'dance tent'. Antonia's strong will, spirit, and honesty allow her to thrive in the midst of hardship. Cather paints a rich picture of life on the prairie at the beginning of the twentieth century and depicts some of the many cultures that came to comprise the United States.
I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the "hands" on my father's old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world. We went all the way in day–coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watch–charm, and for me a "Life of Jesse James," which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read. Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant states and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff–buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk. Once when he sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there was a family from "across the water" whose destination was the same as ours.