Carol Milford attends Blodgett College in Minneapolis in the early 1900s. One day, she escapes from class to look at the city skyline. Beautiful and vivacious, she has several male admirers, including a classmate named Stewart Snyder. During her senior year, Carol feels uncertain about choosing a particular profession. She definitely wants to make a career for herself, however, as she does not want to become a housewife. She possesses an interest in the arts and sociology and imagines becoming a social reformer for the poor. After reading a book on village improvement, she decides she would like to adopt some prairie town and make it beautiful.

As an orphan, Carol is on her own in the world. Her mother died when she was nine, and her kind, learned, and fun-loving died when she was thirteen. Her father, who had worked as a judge in Minnesota, had given her an unorthodox education, allowing her to read whatever she pleased.

Following the advice of her English professor, Carol takes a course in library studies in Chicago. During her graduation ceremonies at Blodgett College, Stewart proposes to her. She rejects his proposal, telling him that she wants to accomplish greater things than raising children and washing dishes.

In Chicago, Carol falls in with the art crowd, attending art museums, symphonies, and Bohemian parties. She feels shy and awkward, however, in the Bohemian circle. She returns to St. Paul to work as a librarian for three years. She reads enormously but does not find her life fulfilling. However, she continues to reject her male suitors until she finally meets Dr. Will Kennicott.

Carol meets Will Kennicott at a friend's house. He is a well-to-do physician in his late thirties from the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. The two get on remarkably well as Will proudly talks about his hometown and profession. Although he went to medical school in Minneapolis, he returned to practice in Gopher Prairie, as his heart has remained there. He suggests that someone like Carol could really enlighten a town like Gopher Prairie.

Kennicott courts Carol. Although she dislikes his materialism, she admires his honesty and finds him attractive. The two take long walks together around St. Paul. One day, they walk through the old section of the city built by fur traders. Will proposes to Carol. He shows her photographs of his hometown, which touch a cord in her heart, and she agrees to marry him and move to Gopher Prairie. She dreams about transforming the small town into a perfect village.