Claude Wheeler is a young man living on a farm near Frankfort, Nebraska. He has no confidence in any of his abilities or his physical appearance and frequently makes reference to his own deficiencies. Above all else, he wants to go away to study. Because of his family’s beliefs, he first attends Temple University, a religious school in Lincoln. Eventually, he manages to enroll in special classes at Nebraska State University, also in Lincoln.
While there, he befriends a student, Julius Ehrlich, and meets the Ehrlich family, who intrigues him with their intellectual lives. Claude indulges in contrasting them with his own family and friends. Growing up on a farm, he has known primarily other farmers, most of whom were, like Ernst Havel, immigrants to the United States.
Just as Claude is doing well at the university, his studies are cut short when his father, Nat, announces that he has purchased a ranch in Colorado. Nat tells Claude that he will begin living most of the time on the ranch and will take Claude’s youngest brother, Ralph, with him. Claude is told to drop out of college, manage the Nebraska farm, and care for his mother. Bayliss, Claude and Ralph’s brother, is a well-known banker in Frankfort.
Claude complies with his father’s orders, and he does a good job running the farm, introducing modern methods. One day, he is severely injured while driving the mule team; the mules had been frightened by a loud noise. Claude’s face is cut, leading to erysipelas, a skin disorder. During convalescence, a childhood friend named Enid Royce begins visiting him. He enjoys her company. After a short courtship, the two marry. On the first night of their marriage, she asks him to sleep elsewhere.
About one year later, Enid’s sister, a missionary in China, gets sick and begs for a family member to come to China to attend to her. Enid, in an unhappy and unconsummated marriage, quickly volunteers. Claude is not sad to see her go.
News of political conflicts in Europe begin to filter through to Claude and the others around Frankfort. Claude enlists in the...