[T]his girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.
The novel opens with an unnamed narrator recounting a train trip through Iowa the previous summer with an old friend named Jim Burden, with whom the narrator grew up in a small Nebraska town. The narrator recalls talking with Jim about childhood on the prairie, and then notes that while they both live in New York, they don’t see each other much, since Jim is frequently away on business and since the narrator doesn’t really like Jim’s wife. The narrator resumes talking about the train trip with Jim through Iowa, adding that their discussion kept returning to a girl named Ántonia, with whom the narrator had lost touch but with whom Jim had renewed his friendship. The narrator recounts that Jim mentioned writing down his memories of Ántonia; the narrator expressed to Jim an interest in reading these writings. A few months later in New York, according to the narrator, Jim brought a portfolio of writings about Ántonia to show to the narrator. The narrator adds that Jim, wanting to title the work, wrote “Ántonia” across the front of the portfolio before frowning and scribbling “My” before “Ántonia.”
As the narrative begins, Jim is ten years old, newly orphaned and making the trip west from Virginia to stay with his grandparents in Black Hawk, Nebraska. He is traveling in the company of a farmhand named Jake Marpole, who is slightly older but who, like Jim, has limited experience of the wider world. Beyond Chicago, a friendly conductor informs Jim that an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, are also bound for Black Hawk. Among this Bohemian family, the only one who speaks any English is Ántonia, a young girl about Jim’s age.
Once the train reaches Black Hawk, Jim and Jake disembark, and one of the Burdens’ hired men, Otto Fuchs, meets them. Before departing for the Burden farm, Jim observes the Shimerdas preparing to set off as well. The emptiness of the Nebraska landscape at night overwhelms Jim as he travels in the jolting wagon. Eventually, he falls asleep on a bed of straw as the wagon travels into the night.
The next afternoon, at the farm, Jim’s grandmother, Mrs. Burden, awakens him and draws a bath for him. Afterward, Jim explores his new surroundings while Mrs. Burden prepares the evening meal. At supper, Jake discusses Virginia with the Burdens. Later, Otto tells stories of ponies and cattle to Jim, and the evening concludes with some family prayers. In the morning, Jim begins to take in the landscape around the farm. When he accompanies Mrs. Burden to the garden to pick potatoes for supper, he stays behind after her and sits quietly among the pumpkins.
On Sunday, the Burdens head out in the wagon to greet their new Bohemian neighbors. Mrs. Burden explains that someone took advantage of the Shimerdas when they decided to move to Black Hawk by overcharging for a farmhouse not suited to the harsh Nebraska winters. Mrs. Shimerda greets the Burdens upon arrival, and Mrs. Burden presents her with some loaves of bread. They exchange greetings, and, as the adults begin talking, Jim and Ántonia run off to play with her youngest sister, Yulka, trailing behind. As they wander through the grass, Jim teaches Ántonia a few English words. When the Burdens prepare to depart, Mr. Shimerda entreats Mrs. Burden to teach English to Ántonia.
Later that same day, Jim takes his first of many long pony rides. As he rides, he reflects on Otto’s story that the sunflowers that fill the prairies sprang from seeds scattered by Mormons on their way to Utah. Jim rides twice a week to the post office, and he describes many other rides that he takes simply to wander or explore the local wildlife, with Ántonia accompanying him at times. Jim begins giving Ántonia regular English lessons, and she loves to help Mrs. Burden around the house.