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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The novel is divided into five books with a framing introduction. In the introduction, the character-narrator Jim Burden meets an old friend with whom he grew up in Nebraska. She is the fictional writer of this introduction. She describes him as a successful lawyer who is unhappily married to a socialite. They discuss their love of the Midwest and the fact that no one who didnít grow up on the Midwest during its early days of colonization would understand the experience. He tells her he has been writing about a girl whom he grew up with named Antonia. Weeks later, he brings her the completed manuscript.
In Book 1, Jim Burden is a boy of ten. He has been orphaned recently and his relatives in Virginia have sent him to live with his paternal grandparents in Nebraska. On the train to Black Hawk, Nebraska he is accompanied by Jake Marpole, a man who has been hired by Jimís grandparents. He hears about an immigrant family on the train who are also headed for Black Hawk but is too shy to meet them. They turn out to be the Shimerdas and they are from Bohemia.
Jake finds life on his grandparentsí farm exciting and also nurturing. He has Otto Fuchs, their Austrian hired hand, to admire, his grandmother to care for him, his grandfather to provide moral instruction, and soon he meets the Shimerdas. The Shimerdas have been badly cheated in their move out to the land and they are in great need. Jim is impressed with Mr. Shimerda, a gentlemanly man who is respectful of children, but he is bothered by Mrs. Shimerdaís importunate manners and her eldest son, Ambroschís rudeness. He likes Antonia and Julka, the two daughters of the family and begins to tutor them in English immediately. They spend a great deal of time together and meet several of the neighboring settlers. Two of these are Peter and Pavel, Russian bachelors who have a nearby homestead. Antonia tells Jim all about her father who was a trombone player in Bohemia and greatly admired for his skill and general erudition. He is very unhappy in the United States, though he tries to do his best for his family.
One day Jim is feeling peeved at Antonia for treating him like a kid. They are playing around a prairie dog town and happen upon a five-foot long rattlesnake which Jim kills. Antonia begins to respect him after that. During winter, Jimís family hears that the Shimerdas are eating prairie dogs, and they set out with provisions to help get them through the winter. They find them near starvation with little warm clothing for the winter. On Christmas day, the land is hit by a blizzard and no one can get to Black Hawk to buy Christmas presents. They make gifts for the Shimerdas and for each other. Otto Fuchs brings a tree home and they decorate it with exquisite decorations his mother has been sending him from Austria over the past years. Mr. Shimerda visits to thank them for the gifts and stays for dinner. He is so pleased with the tree that he bows before it and prays. He seems perfectly contented in the Burdenís cozy home. Weeks later, Mrs. Shimerda visits along with Antonia. She snoops around the house exclaiming over all that the Burdens have and all that she doesnít have. Mrs. Burden tells Jim to understand that Mrs. Shimerdaís rudeness probably comes from seeing her children in want.
When Jim is eleven years old, Mr. Shimerda commits suicide. Since the Catholic Church refuses to admit his body into its graveyard, the neighbor's appeal to the Norwegians in the nearby Norwegian settlement, but they, too, refuse the body. Anton Jelinek, a new immigrant from Bohemia, explains the Catholic customs to the Burdens and helps with the funeral arrangements. He tells a story of the Prussian war when he was an altar boy to a priest. During a cholera epidemic, he and the priest went into the killing fields to give the last rites to the dying soldiers and never contracted cholera. Mrs. Shimerda wants the body to be buried at a crossroads. All the neighbors come to the funeral. It is one of the only times Jim sees all of them together. Jim has a special feeling for this gravesite. The two roads by pass it and a fence is put around it protecting it from all the development of the land so that it is the last place where the red grass of the Nebraska prairie is left natural.
Spring arrives with a fury and Jim is euphoric over it. He is saddened when Antonia can no longer play with him or take lessons from him because she works the fields on her familyís farm. When a school is opened, Antonia cannot attend even though she is fifteen years old and eager to learn. Jake Marpole gets into a fight with Ambrosch Shimerda over a halter that Ambrosch borrowed and then misused. He hits him and knocks him down. Antonia and her mother come running and Antonia tells Jake and Jim they are no longer her friends. Mr. Burden sends Jake to town to pay a fine for the assault. While he is there he sells a pig. The Shimerdas find out that he sold a pig the same day he paid the find and think one was done to pay for the other. They are satisfied that Jake has paid a high price and Antonia taunts him whenever she sees him. Weeks later, Mr. Burden decides to heal the rift by inviting Ambrosch to come help with his harvest and Antonia to help Mrs. Burden in the house. He also gives Mrs. Shimerda a cow that she has bought from him but only partially paid for. Jim enjoys having Antonia in the house while she is working for his grandmother and they get to have nice talks as they used to.
Book 2, titled "Hired Girls" is begun three years after the novelís opening. Jimís grandparents move to Black Hawk for their retirement. Otto and Jake leave for gold prospecting in the West. Jim settles into the ways of a town boy. He loves to spend time with the Harlings, the Burdensí next door neighbors. Mr. Harling is a successful cattle buyer and is most times away from home. Mrs. Harling is an energetic and loving woman who makes the childrenís lives fun. Mrs. Burden arranges to get Mrs. Harling to hire Antonia as her housekeeper. She wants Antonia to learn manners and to save her from the drudgery of farm work. Antonia, now seventeen years old, loves working for the Harlings. Jimís happy times at the Harlings are periodically interrupted by the return of Mr. Harling who takes all of Mrs. Harlingís attention away from the children.
One day Lena Lingard comes to visit the Harlings and asks Antonia to come and see her sometimes. Antonia is reluctant to be friendly to her. Jim learns that Lena has a bad reputation on the prairie. She is the eldest daughter of a poor-farming family. Her job has been to herd cattle. A neighbor man, Ole Benson, became infatuated with her and spent his days with her. His wife, Crazy Mary, tried to kill Lena. At Christmas, Jim sees Lena at a Black Hawk store helping him make purchases for the family. He is touched by her devotion to her family. She tells him she is determined to build her mother a house some day.
Winter hits Black Hawk hard, but Jim enjoys warm times at the Harlingsí where Antonia has become a second mother to the children. Once she tells the story of a threshing suicide. She was working on the threshing machine during a harvest and a man came walking up out of the blue. He spoke strangely to her and then called up to the man working the thresher to let him have a go at it. As soon as he got up there, he dove into the thresher and died. One day Jim hears that Blind díArnault is coming to town. He plays for the men at the Boysí Club, a favorite hotel among traveling salesmen and railroad men. He hears Blind díArnaultís story. He is a Black man who grew up in the south on a plantation. He was blind from birth and developed a habit of rocking back and forth. His mother loved him but was ashamed of him so she hid him away. He loved to get away and listen outside the house of the white plantation owners to the piano music. One day he crawled into the window and began playing. When the white mistress found him, she gave him piano lessons. Since then he travels around playing the piano for white audiences.
In the summer, the Vannis, an Italian couple, come to town and set up a dance company. All the middle-class children in town take dance lessons during the week and on Saturday night, there is a dance open to all. Middle-class town boys get the chance to dance with the hired girls who have come in from the country to work. One of these boys is Sylvester Lovett, the town bankerís son. He becomes infatuated with Lena, but after dallying with her for a time, he rushes into a marriage with a widow who has land. Antonia begins to love dancing and spends all her free time preparing for the dances. One night Mr. Harling hears her slapping a man who has escorted her home and tried to force a kiss out of her. He forbids her from going to the dances any more. She refuses to let him dictate her private life and quits. Quitting means she will be ostracized by the Harlings. She goes to work for the Cutters, an extraordinarily quarrelsome couple. Mr. Cutter has made his fortune by charging usurious interest rates to farmers.