After a year of courting, Kennicott and Carol marry. They go on a honeymoon in Colorado, and then travel by train to Gopher Prairie. Observing the other passengers—poor farmers, tired-looking wives, and numerous children—Carol feels distressed that these people humbly accept their poverty and ignorance. She imagines how she could transform these people's lives for the better. Surprised by Carol's perception, Kennicott tells her that the farmers do not mind their hardship and are better off than she thinks. Many even possess telephones and Ford automobiles.
As the train stops in Schoenstrom—a town of 150 inhabitants that looks like a mining camp—Carol comments about the ugliness of the town to Will. However, he does not find the town ugly as she does, and he points out that Gopher Prairie is larger and more beautiful. He also points out a rich farmer he recognizes who lives in the town. Carol replies that people should use their wealth to beautify their town, but Kennicott does not understand her point of view. She looks out at the prairie, imagines the pioneers who came to build an empire, and wonders about the land's future.
Seeing Gopher Prairie for the first time from the train, Carol feels disappointed because the town looks just like all the other ugly prairie towns she had passed on the train. However, noticing Kennicott's excitement, she conceals her disappointment. Kennicott's friends Sam Clark, Dave Dyer, Jack Elder, and Harry and Juanita Haydock welcome the couple home at the train station. Carol feels shy but touched by their warm reception. Sam drives the Kennicotts home. Kennicott's old-fashioned house disappoints Carol, but she again conceals her disappointment as her husband eagerly shows her around the house.
Lewis begins the novel with a vivid portrait of Carol: "On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of the Northern sky." As the English novelist E.M. Forster noted, Lewis largely functions as a photographic writer by creating carefully detailed images that seem as real as snapshots. Lewis paints another remarkable picture of the train's passengers as he describes the characters' appearance and mannerisms.
Lewis's strength as a writer lies in his ability to set a particular scene more than to tell the story. Throughout the novel, he carefully recreates town life down to its smallest detail. The setting of Gopher Prairie, stemming from Lewis's focus on recreating a particular place at a particular time, often overshadows the plot and main characters. In fact, many have criticized the novel for lacking a coherently sketched plot. Instead, the plot combines a series of episodes—Lewis's snapshots—into what amounts to a photographic album. After all, the novel contains many chapters that are further divided into several sub-sections.
Throughout the novel, Lewis references the influence of the past on the present. As Carol realizes later, many Midwesterners retain the conservatism and pioneer spirit of their ancestors. Carol, on the other hand, strikes us as a remarkably modern woman for her time. She chooses a profession rather than marriage, takes an interest in intellectual subjects (books, music, and art) and holds liberal opinions about contemporary social issues (labor unions and women's rights, among others). In the first paragraph of the novel, Carol thinks only about the present (her classes) rather than the past (the Chippewas and the Yankee fur traders).