A caravan, consisting of two dilapidated wagons drawn by oxen and followed by a tethered cow, makes its way through the tall grass of the Great Plains. Walking ahead of it is Per Hansa, a Norwegian immigrant, who with his family and all his earthly possessions is moving west from Minnesota to Dakota Territory. His family consists of his wife, Beret, his two sons, Ole and Hans, and his daughter, Anna Marie.
For more than three weeks the caravan has been painfully crawling across the plain. Per Hansa knows he is lost, for he had gotten off the trail and can only hope that by heading west he will reach Split Rock Creek soon. Ahead of them are other Norwegian pioneers from whom they have become separated. Beret wonders if they will ever see the others again, and Per Hansa tries to console her by saying that as long as they head towards the sunset, they will eventually meet. Towards sunset, Hans, who has been walking ahead with his father, says he sees a wood ahead and wonders if there are people there. Per Hansa decides to stop for the night.
They prepare their campsite and each of them performs chores. The fire is made and Beret waits for the pot to boil. Hans wanders off up a hill, but when he sees how far he has come from the wagons, he is afraid and returns quickly. They eat supper, which consists of porridge and milk. After supper, they watch the moon rise over the plains and Per Hansa orders the children to go to sleep. Per Hansa smokes his pipe, and after the children have gone to sleep Beret asks him if he thinks they will ever find the others again. Per Hansa says he is sure of it.
Although Per Hansa pretends to sleep, he lies awake for a long time, staring into the night. He is gnawed by doubts, about whether he should ever have started on this journey, and he recalls how his wife had had grave misgivings about the venture. He remembers with dismay how his wagon had been wrecked, and he had had to put back to Jackson for repairs while the others went on ahead. His friend, Hans Olsa, had wanted to wait for him, but Per Hansa had insisted he go on ahead. And now he was lost. Per Hansa wonders why he had ever left Fillmore County. He should have stayed until his wife had had her child and then moved west in the spring.
When he feels sure that everyone is sleeping, Per Hansa dresses and goes off to examine the ground they will travel the next day. He goes over a ridge and finds an abandoned campsite and some fresh horse dung. He goes on to find a ford across the creek; he finds it, wades across, and finds a dried mutton leg that he knows belonged to Hans Olsa. Per Hansa is happy now, for he knows he has found the trail. He returns to the camp and finds Beret awake. She has been terrified to find him gone, and Per Hansa comforts her.
In these early short chapters, Rölvaag sets the scene of the Great Plains in the days before they were settled. The picture we get is one of desolation, of a sea of grass through which a solitary family caravan moves slowly. At the same time, the author is building up the character of his protagonists. In the beginning, the protagonist is clearly Per Hansa, the Norwegian pioneer, eager to take up land and build himself a home.
Time and again we are reminded of how miserably frail and weak this small caravan is against the forces of nature personified by the great, vast country. But at the same time, while we are shown that Per Hansa has his doubts, his strength of character is being brought out. He is at heart an optimist and sure that he will eventually reach the others of the group who have gone ahead of him because of the accident he had had with his wagon.
In contrast, while it is not brought out strongly yet, we see that Per Hansa's wife, Beret, has doubts that are much deeper, that she already feels a hatred for this desolate land. It is only because her husband had wanted to push westward that Beret had come; she has no desire to make a home in this country. At the end of the first book, we see Beret's fears come to the surface when she thinks that Per Hansa has left her.
The opening chapters are in essence a masterful description of the Great Plains and an introduction to the character of the two protagonists, Beret and Per Hansa. At this point, more has been said about Per Hansa, but the book is actually a saga of Beret, as will become evident.
While the plot lines are in no way similar, the opening of Rölvaag's book is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun's (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1920) Growth of the Soil, in which the great Norwegian author tells the tale of Norwegian pioneers heading north in their own country.
At this point, the supernatural is not brought out yet, but Beret's misgivings as they head into the unknown are laying the foundation for what will come later.