Cather’s novel is the story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, and her friendship with Jim Burden, an orphan who travels to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. The novel is told as Burden remembers it later in his life. Far from being a romanticization of the homesteader experience, Cather’s story deals forthrightly with the harshness of life on the plains and the very different sorts of lives Jim and Antonia come to lead, in part because of differences in social standing and ethnic background.
The novel can be broken into three sections. In the first section (Book 1), the Shimerdas arrive in Black Hawk and Antonia and Jim become fast friends. Jim teaches Antonia English and attains a kind of hero status with her when he kills a large snake. Antonia’s father, a respected musician in Bohemia but unable to do any useful work in his new home, commits suicide, and Antonia becomes a field hand to help make ends meet.
The second part, Books 2 and 3, deals with Antonia’s life as a teenager. She becomes a servant for two families in Black Hawk—the Harlings, and then the Cutters. Meanwhile, Jim is preparing to go to college. Antonia is a free-spirited girl, and chafes when the Harlings try to regulate her social life. She quits to work for the Cutters, despite the head of the household Wick Cutter's bad reputation. Jim saves Antonia from Wick's attempted attack, but Antonia’s budding sexuality and her open, trusting manner make her an easy mark for men. She runs off to Colorado with a train conductor. When she becomes pregnant, he abandons her. She returns to Black Hawk in disgrace. Jim, meanwhile, has left Nebraska to attend college in the east.
The last part of the book, Books 4 and 5, tell the story of Antonia’s young womanhood, her hard work on the farm, and her eventual marriage to a local Bohemian man, Cuzak. Jim, now an educated man of consequence, returns from the east for a visit and visits Antonia, and her many children, on her farm. Although their lives have turned out very differently, the book ends with the sense that the bond of friendship between Jim and Antonia will never be broken.
Although the events of the plot may seem trivial, the real power of the novel comes from Cather’s realistic portrayal of her characters and their relationships with each other and the endless prairie that surrounds them. Among the many achievements of the book, perhaps the greatest is how Cather shows how Jim and Antonia can be very different people, even while inextricably bound to each other by shared experience and a shared landscape.