The book begins as Ellen Creighton and her nine-year-old son, Jethro, plant potatoes for the summer crop. Ellen has had twelve children, four of whom have died. She is a tired woman who favors Jethro most of all. Three of Jethro's siblings died from children's paralysis the year Jethro was born, but Jethro managed to escape the disease. Ellen knows he is special, "as if, somehow, Destiny had marked him." They break to say goodbye to Shadrach Yale, Jethro's teacher who, upon not having enough money to continue his studies, began teaching at the school where Matt Creighton, Jethro's father, worked. Ellen had nursed Shadrach back to health after he contracted typhoid fever, and Shadrach is now part of the family—especially to Jethro's sister Jenny, who has been in love with Shadrach for some time.
Shadrach is planning to leave to go to a neighboring town to receive news about the dispute between the North and the South. Ellen worries that he will bring back news of war. As they are working in the field, Jethro tries to distract his mother by telling her about Copernicus, but he knows that nothing can make her forget about the troubles. Talk of Abraham Lincoln's election, issues of tariffs, free states, slave states, and rebellion have gotten so heated that war seems imminent. Jethro kind of looks forward to the war, because "war meant loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing uniforms . "
Thinking of war prompts Jethro to think about his sister Mary's death. A group of hoodlums broke up a dance she was attending and chased Mary and her date. One of the hoodlums, Travis Burdow, fired a pistol that frightened the horses, causing the wagon to overturn and kill Mary. The town banded together to seek revenge on Travis Burdow—the whole Burdow family had been hoodlums—but Matt Creighton had called an end to it. Jethro feels the same about Lincoln as he did about his father then: "They had not shown the hard, unyielding attitude that he admired . " Ellen explains that Lincoln has to make a choice when there seems only two wrong choices to make.
Nancy, Jethro's brother John's wife, and Jenny prepare dinner, and the family all sits down to eat. The whole family including Bill and Tom, Jethro's brothers, and Eb, Jethro's cousin, are there. Jenny and Bill are Jethro's favorites, even though Bill sometimes seems strange and quiet, preferring a book to anyone's company. At the table they talk about Jenny's affection for Shadrach, which Matt Creighton promptly discourages, saying she is too young.
Jethro and his mother return to the field. As they stop to rest, they see a team of horses coming up the road. It is Wilse Graham, Ellen's sister's son, visiting from Kentucky. They anxiously await what news he brings.
Wilse brings Ellen up to date on her Kentucky family. Matt asks Wilse if Kentucky wants to secede, and Wilse says maybe and, in return, asks how southern Illinois would feel about it. Matt says it will be hard for the river states, and Wilse argues that southern Illinois is part of the South. Matt argues that "separate, we're jest two weakened, puny pieces, each needin' the other." Wilse argues that only half of the country enjoys those benefits. Wilse says that the South should be able to do what it wants with no interference and adds that since the beginning of time slavery has existed. Wilse says that the real issue is greed, not slavery. Jethro listens to this conversation and realizes that any excitement he felt about the prospect of war was immature.