Local train No. 7 grumbles its way though Minnesota without porter, pillow, or berths, but jammed with farmers and their untidy families, workmen, and traveling salesmen. The atmosphere is thick and stale.
Among the slatternly passengers, Dr. Will Kennicott and his bride, Carol, stand out as cool, clean, and prosperous. After a year of courtship, they had been married and are now returning from their honeymoon in the Colorado mountains. Carol is depressed by the sordidness of the towns they view from the train but is assured by her husband that Gopher Prairie is different from the others and far more interesting.
The newlyweds are met at the train by the Sam Clarks, Dave Dyer, Harry Haydock and his wife, Juanita, and other neighbors. In a Paige car, the Clarks drive the Kennicotts home to "a prosaic frame house in a small, parched town."
Carol tries to conceal her real feelings from her husband as he welcomes her to their home and promises her that she may make any changes she chooses.
Their first evening in Gopher Prairie, the Kennicotts are invited to a welcome party for Carol at the home of the Clarks. That afternoon Dr. Kennicott leaves Carol to unpack while he goes to his office. Becoming depressed by the furnishings, location, and architecture of the house in which she is to live, she goes for a walk to inspect the town. Used to the indifference of cities, she does not realize that she is being observed while she is observing.
Carol walks thirty-two minutes and covers the town. The Bon Ton Store (Haydock and Simons') is the largest and cleanest shop. Others are less attractive, such as Axel Egge's General Store, Dashaway's House Furnishing Emporium, Billy's Lunch, Ye Art Shoppe, the tailor shop, the school building, and the State Bank. The Farmers' National Bank is more satisfying. The lack of planning, the flimsiness of the buildings, and the disregard for others which each owner had shown overwhelm her. She is brave enough to say to her husband, however, upon her return, that she finds the town "very interesting."
Miss Bea Sorenson, a stalwart young Swede, arrives in Gopher Prairie on the same train that brings Carol. The two young ladies, as yet unacquainted, look the town over the same afternoon with quite different reactions. Bea admires Gopher Prairie and decides to stay. She determines to hire herself to Mrs. Kennicott for six dollars a week.
The party at Sam Clark's is difficult for Carol. She feels that she had not dressed properly and that she is being evaluated and criticized from all sides. To put up a bold front, she carries on a frivolous and somewhat shocking conversation but is unable to keep it up for longer than fifteen minutes.
After several tiresome stunts, the men and women divide, and Carol is left with matrons who talk of nothing but children, sickness, and cooks. She unconventionally joins her husband and finds that the men also are gossiping of personalities. She tries a few questions about labor unions and profit sharing but learns that the subjects are not popular and that the consensus favors hanging all agitators and reformers. On the way home, Dr. Kennicott reminds his wife that she will have to be "more careful about shocking folks."
Keen power of observation and a remarkable memory for detail enabled Sinclair Lewis to reproduce for his readers the sordid Minnesota town with its narrow-minded inhabitants to whom any hint of progress and change is an abomination. Interested only in the accumulation of wealth and in material progress, content with the status quo and hostile toward those who would disturb it, these people and their shabby town are held up to ridicule by Lewis, the master realist. By contrast, the countryside around is one of great natural beauty, "a land of fairy herds and exquisite lakes," where the "long rows of wheat shocks marched like soldiers in worn yellow tabards."
Numerous new characters are introduced in these chapters in an attempt to present a more rounded view of the town and its inhabitants. Notable is Bea Sorenson, whose life will for a time run parallel with that of Carol. Others to be remembered are the Luke Dawsons, the Haydocks, Dr. Terry Gould, the Stowbodys (father and daughter), Chet Dashaway, and Dave Dyer.