At the age of ten, Jim Burden travels by cross-country train to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska frontier. He has just recently lost both his parents, and he is accompanied by a farmhand named Jake. On the same train is a Bohemian family that barely speaks English and that is going to the same place. When Jim arrives at the station, he is greeted by Otto Fuchs, an Austrian desperado cowboy.
Jim's grandparents are kindly people with simple religious beliefs and very generous natures. Jim enjoys the wide expanses of the frontier, with all its insects, prairie dogs, and vegetation. At this point in the year it is still summer. Soon the Burdens go to meet their Bohemian neighbors, the Shimerdas, who were forced to pay too much for their farm by the only other Bohemian man in the country, Peter Krajiek. Jim meets Mr. Shimerda, an educated musician who is very kindly; Mrs. Shimerda, a shrewish woman who is complaining and demanding; the oldest son Ambrosch, who is a stubborn, stingy brute; Marek, a mentally challenged boy; and Yulka, a young and pretty girl. The oldest daughter Ántonia also comes running up to him, grabs his hand, and they go sprinting into the fields.
Ántonia and Jim instantly become friends, and they spend a lot of time together outdoors, with Jim teaching her English. The Shimerdas are not doing very well in their new country, but they do become friends with two Russian men, Peter and Pavel. The Burdens try to help out as much as they can. One day during the end of summer, Jim kills a huge snake and impresses Ántonia, who had been treating him with condescension.
Soon, winter comes. Jim gets very sick, and Pavel dies, after unburdening his heart with a horrible story from his past. Mr. Shimerda becomes depressed after Peter moves away. The Burdens celebrate Christmas at home and make presents for each other since they cannot get into