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Carol Milford is a student of Blodgett College. Her ambition is to settle down in a prairie village and transform it into a place of beauty. She works as a librarian at St. Paul after her graduation. She meets Dr. Kennicott at a friend's house. He falls in love with her. After a courtship of two years they get married and Kennicott takes her to Gopher Prairie, the prairie town that he is proud of. Carol finds people of Gopher Prairie to be provincial. They gossip all the time. She finds the houses are ill assorted and the shops look ugly. She tries to change the ideas of the people and to get them to build a new school, a new city hall and library and a better looking, more comfortable rest room for the farmer's wives. She is not encouraged by any one-not even her husband.
She is attracted by the intelligence of Guy Pollock-the lawyer. But she gets over it when she finds that he loves only dead elegance and does not care for any social reformation. The members of the Jolly Seventeen criticize her ideas, her dress and her party and Carol feels miserable. She finds a friend in Vida with whom she can discuss books. She's full of reverence for her husband's work as a doctor. But life in Gopher Prairie offers no challenges. She gives birth to a boy.
She likes her Swedish maid, Bea Sorenson. She likes to talk to the town's handyman, Bjornstam who is disliked by the majority of the people for his democratic and atheistic ideas. Bea gets married to Bjornstam and Carol treats them as her close friends. Bea and her son Olaf die of typhoid. Heart broken, Bjornstam leaves the town. Her friend Vida marries Raymond Wutherspoon. The great European War breaks out and Vida's husband, Raymond joins the army. Kennicott wants to enroll too but the medical council requests him to stay back to look after the health of the people of the town. Erik Valborg, a Swedish farmer's son comes to Gopher Prairie as the tailor's assistant. Fern Mullins, a young lady teacher also joins the school at Gopher Prairie in Vida's place. Carol finds their company very stimulating because of their love for books, dance, music and drama. Cy Bogart, the brutish son of the town's scandalmonger Mrs. Bogart, ruins Fern's reputation and she is forced to resign and leave Gopher Prairie. Erik is attracted by Carol and goes out with her for long walks. Kennicott knows about the attraction between them but does not worry because he knows that Carol is interested only in the mind of Erik and that she does not care for physical intimacy. However, after the Fern Mullins episode, when Carol goes for a long walk with Erik, Kennicott brings them back to save Carol from a scandal. Erik leaves the town. Carol ignores all the tongue-in-cheek comments made by her acquaintances. Kennicott takes her on a long tour to California and other places.
She works in Washington for two years. Though she enjoys looking at the beautiful buildings and feels happy to be in the company of intelligent young people, she feels old, rustic and lonely. Kennicott visits her in Washington to woo her for the second time. Carol mellows and admits her desire to return to Gopher Prairie. Kennicott asks her to return only when she is whole-heartedly prepared to return.
She talks to the leader of the suffrage movement who tells her that she cannot achieve anything without total dedication. She points out that Carol has a child to take care of. She convinces Carol that she can play at least a small role in changing life by persistently asking questions whenever she finds anything that hinders social change. This idea is acceptable to Carol. Her life in Washington helps her to acquire a mature outlook towards life and she is ready to return to Gopher Prairie.
Carol is at last able to accept Gopher Prairie and its people as they are. But she does not give up her fight to make Gopher Prairie a better place. She gives birth to a daughter and feels optimistic that her daughter will carry on the fight that she had started and witness a united world.