Isak leaves a small Norwegian village and sets out into the wilds to claim a homestead. Carrying some food and a few rude implements, he wanders until he finds a stretch of grass and woodland, with a stream nearby. There he clears the land. He has to carry everything he buys out from the village on his back. He builds a sod house, procures several goats, and prepares for winter.
He sends word by traveling Lapps that he needs a woman to help in the fields. One day, Inger appears with her belongings. She has a cleft lip and is not beautiful, but she is a good worker and shares Isak’s bed. She brings things from her home, including a cow.
That winter, Inger bears her first child, Eleseus. He is a fine boy, with no cleft lip. In the spring, Inger’s relative Oline comes to see the new family. She promises to return to take care of the farming in the fall, when Inger and Isak plan to go to town to be married and have the child baptized. The farm prospers through the summer.
The harvest is not good, but potatoes carry Isak’s family through the winter without hunger. Inger bears a second son, Sivert. Then Geissler, the sheriff’s officer, comes to tell Isak that he will have to pay the government for his land. He promises to make the terms as easy as possible. Geissler loses his position, however, and a new officer comes to look at the land with his assistant, Brede Olsen. He, too, promises to do what he can for Isak.
One day, Inger sends her husband to town. While he is gone, she bears her third child, a girl with a cleft lip. Knowing what the deformed child would suffer, Inger strangles the infant and buries the body in the woods. Later she convinces Isak she had not really been pregnant.
Oline, who knew that Inger was pregnant, finds the grave in the woods when she comes to the farm. Inger explains her deed as well as she can to Isak, and he is satisfied. When Lapp beggars tell the story of the hidden grave, the sheriff’s officer hears of it and there is an investigation and a trial. Inger is sent to prison at Bergen for eight years. Needing someone to help with the farm and the children, Isak hires Oline.
Isak gets the deed for his land and pays the first installment, but there is no joy in his farming now that Inger is gone. He works only from habit and necessity. Geissler comes to tell Isak that he has seen Inger in Bergen and that she has borne a girl in prison, a child without a blemish.
The old life is changing. Men come through to put up a telegraph line. Between Isak’s place and the village, Brede starts a farm. Other settlers appear as the years pass. Oline is unbearable. She steals livestock from Isak and spends his money for trifles. Speculating on copper mining, Geissler buys some of Isak’s land. With Geissler’s help, Inger, whose cleft lip has been operated on in Bergen, is finally released from prison. At first she is happy to return to the farm with little Leopoldine, but she has learned city ways and now farm life seems rough and lonely. She no longer helps Isak with his work. Eleseus is sent to town, where he gets a job in an office. Sivert, who is much like his father, remains at home. Axel Ström now has a farm near Isak’s. Brede’s daughter, Barbro, comes...
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to stay with Axel and help him with his work.
Inger bears another daughter, Rebecca, and Isak hires a girl to help with the housework. Eleseus returns from town to help on the farm. Geissler sells the copper mine property, and Isak receives a large sum for the rights he retained on the property. He is able to buy the first mowing machine in the district. Eleseus takes an interest in Barbro, but when he discovers that she is pregnant, he goes back to the city. Axel buys Brede’s farm when Brede moves back to town. One day, he finds Barbro down by the brook with her drowned baby. She says she fell, and the baby was born in the water. Axel does not quarrel with her, for fear she will leave him.
That winter, after Barbro goes to Bergen, Axel has to manage the farm himself. One day, he is pinned to the ground by a falling tree during a snowstorm. Brede, who is angry with Axel, passes by without offering to help. Quite by chance, Oline hears Axel’s cries for help and releases him. Afterward, she stays to manage his house for him, but she never lets him forget his debt to her for saving his life. Little by little, she learns the story of Barbro and the baby.
A man named Aronsen builds a big store in the new neighborhood. Miners soon move in to begin working the land Geissler and Isak have sold. Then the mine plays out. Geissler owns the additional land needed to keep the mine working, but he asks more than the mine owners will pay. The mine remains idle.
When the rumor about Barbro’s baby at last comes to the attention of the authorities, Axel and Barbro have to appear for trial in the town. Because there is so little evidence, Axel goes free. Barbro goes to work for the wife of the sheriff’s officer, who promises to see that Barbro behaves herself.
There seems little hope that the mine will reopen, for Geissler will not sell his land. After Aronsen sells his store to Isak, Eleseus is persuaded to return from the city and take over the store property. Isak is now a rich man. In the spring, Geissler sells his land and work resumes at the mine. The miners, however, live on the far side of the property in another district. The village is no better off than before.
Barbro can no longer stand being watched by the wife of the sheriff’s officer. When she returns to Axel, he takes her in after she convinces him that she means to stay and marry him. Old Oline will not leave Axel’s farm, but she soon grows ill and dies, leaving the young people by themselves.
Eleseus did not manage the store well. At last, when he sees failure staring him in the face, he borrows more money from his father and sets out for America. He never returns. Sivert and two other men carry some of the goods from the store to the new mine, but the mine has shut down again. They find Geissler wandering about the deserted mine; he says that he is thinking of buying back the property. When the three men return, Isak is sowing corn. The copper mine and the store, good times and bad, have come and gone, but the soil is still there. For Isak and Inger, the first sowers in the wilds, the corn still grows.