In “A House in the Plains,” Earle, the eighteen-year-old narrator, describes the machinations of Mama, who insists that he call her Aunt Dora, following their hasty departure from Chicago when Dora’s latest husband dies. Earle regrets leaving city attractions, especially Winifred, an older woman who is his longtime sexual partner.
Dora and Earle move to a farm outside LaVille, Illinois, where Dora establishes herself as a wealthy widow who takes in three foster children from the New York slums. She also brings in a cook-housekeeper who speaks no English. The only local she employs is Bent (the handyman), with whom she begins a sexual relationship.
Once Dora establishes her positive image, her character as a black widow emerges. Taking advantage of Nordic immigrants with enough money to buy land but no real understanding of American culture, she offers them a partnership in the farm, which she has heavily mortgaged at the local bank. Bent is jealous of these men, but none seem to remain. Meanwhile, Dora’s bank account mysteriously grows.
Two incidents lead to a climactic resolution. Henry Lundgren, a Swedish immigrant, shows up, demanding to know what happened to his brother Per, who disappeared after meeting with Dora; and Winifred writes Earle that the husband’s remains were exhumed and the police are looking for Dora.
A few days later, the farmhouse burns, and two headless bodies are found inside, along with the bodies of the three children. Bent has been very thoroughly framed for the crime. The site of this tragedy draws gawkers from as far away as Chicago and Indianapolis—arguably Doctorow’s comment on Americans’ fascination with the macabre. Winifred arrives to see where Earle died, but as he reveals that he is alive, he also tells her that she is now an accessory after the fact and insists she accompany him and Dora to California.