The novel opens in the town of Hanover, Nebraska. Frozen and unsettled, Hanover looks as if it might disappear at any moment, swallowed up by the vast, windblown prairie. This afternoon the streets are empty except for a little Swedish boy named Emil, who sits and cries because his kitten has been chased up a telegraph pole. He does not know who to ask for help in getting the kitten down because his sister, Alexandra, has gone to the doctor's office. As soon as she returns, tall and strong in a man's coat, Emil tells her about the kitten. She scolds him a bit before setting off to find a friend who might be able to help Emil. Before she departs, Alexandra winds her scarf about her little brother, revealing her beautiful red-blond hair. A passing man pays her a compliment, but she responds with practiced steeliness. Alexandra fetches Carl Linstrum, who borrows some spikes for his shoes and scales the pole to retrieve the kitten.
They enter the general store together while Alexandra quietly informs Carl that their father is very ill and likely to die. She does not know how they will survive without him. Uncertain of what to say, but sympathetic, Carl tells her that he will get her team of horses ready and take her back as far as his homestead. Alexandra notices that Emil has begun playing with a little bohemian girl, Marie, who is the darling niece of Joe Tovesky. Joe comes in with a group of friends, and they spoil Marie, who has come from Omaha with her mother to visit her uncle. They buy her bags of sweets and she gives some to Emil-perhaps because she doesn't think much of small-town candy.
As Carl, Emil and Alexandra ride back to their homesteads, Alexandra tells Carl more about her worries. Carl offers to bring his magic lantern to their house, to try and distract their father from his worries. Alexandra thinks it's a wonderful idea. They pass the Linstrum homestead and Carl gets out; Alexandra takes the reins and drives on to her house.
The Bergson homestead is distinguished only by the fact that it overlooks a small Creek which sometimes runs and sometimes doesn't. It seems as if no human beings could possibly live there-as John Bergson, Alexandra and Emil's father, has done for eleven years. After working off his mortage for five years, John now owns six hundred and forty acres. But with random catastrophes and difficult land, John Bergson doesn't feel that he has much to show for his hard work. John counts the cattle and talks to Alexandra about their possible value in the spring. Though his sons are hard workers and he cannot fault them, it is Alexandra who shares his passion and intelligence for farming. He compares Alexandra to his grandfather: a shipbuilder who built an impressive fortune. True, his grandfather's second wife wasted the money, but John doesn't believe that ruins the accomplishment.
John Bergson calls out to Alexandra in Swedish. She comes to him, and once the boys, Oscar and Lou, have come in from feeding the horses, John tells them that after he has died, he wants Alexandra, as the oldest, to run the farm. He asks the boys to obey their sister and Oscar, the second eldest, informs his father that they would have done so whether he charged them to or not. They sit down to dinner that night with red eyes and they don't eat much, though they have a good dinner. Their mother is a good housekeeper, though born of a lower status than their father. She regrets living in the middle of nowhere and she does her best to recreate the home of her childhood, preserving and pickling everything she can, always keeping clean sheets and a neat house. Her neighbors think she is stuck up, and indeed she does look down on their slovenly habits.
Six months after John Bergson has died, Carl Lingsrum sees the Bergson wagon pull up in front of his house. Oscar, Lou, Alexandra and Emil invite him to come along to crazy Ivar's, where they are going to buy a hammock and to see his pond. As they drive along they talk about the different things that crazy Ivar does, joking about how he howls and talks to animals. Carl and Alexandra remark that despite his strange methods, he does cure animals. Alexandra insists that if you get him on a good day he can give very good advice. Oscar and Lou complain about not being allowed to bring their guns, but Alexandra reminds them that Ivar hates it when people bring guns onto his property.
They can only reach Ivar's property by a very bad road, and if it weren't for a stovepipe sticking out of the sod no one would know it was there at all. The pond has been formed by an "earthen dam, planted with willow bushes, and above it a door and a single window were set into the hillside." When they arrive, Ivar is sitting and reading the Norwegian bible, and when he spots them he cries out "no guns." Alexandra reassures him and tells him that they want to buy a hammock. They ask him questions about his pond, and he tells them, with Alexandra translating, that a crane was there the night before and he has even seen a seagull. Emil finds Ivar's life very attractive.
When the boys have gone to water the horses in the pond, Alexandra asks Ivar for advice about their hogs, because everyone else's hogs seem to be dying. He tells her to put them in a clean pasture and give them only clean things to eat, just like the horses and cattle. Oscar and Lou overhear this advice with annoyance. They don't like doing things differently than their neighbors. On the way home, Alexandra doesn't bring up Ivar's idea, but that night when the boys and Carl go swimming, she sits and thinks about her new pigpen.
The first part of O Pioneers! is called "The Wild Land," alluding to one of the most significant literary choices in the novel. Cather herself declared that the land-not the people who reside on it-was to be the hero or anti-hero of this novel; this first title suggests the degree to which the character of the land will play a role. The title sets the scene for Cather's famous first line:
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence.
Cather's landscape is so immense and so overwhelming that the scattered vestiges of human habitation seem like they could blow away at any moment.
In this first line, Cather also introduces the simple frame of a narrator looking back on the distant past. Some critics have suggested that O Pioneers exemplifies the poet William Wordsworth's poetic style of "emotion recollected in tranquility." After only a few pages it becomes clear that O Pioneers! is a collection of memories that, once they are strung together, reveal the intertwined paths of a group of people as they struggle to establish a home in the wilderness. The first scene might appear disjointed, but it serves the important function of introducing many of the characters and revealing aspects of them that will prove meaningful and revealing as the story continues.
As the characters' personalities develop, the narrator begins to build on the idea that some are more suited than others to the role of "pioneers." Emil seems to be a sweet and innocent little boy, but he is neither brave nor independent, hardly a pioneer. He relies greatly on his sister to tell him what to do and how to be. He admires Carl for saving his kitten from the telegraph pole, and he says that he will do the same thing for little boys someday; we shall see whether this comes to pass. Alexandra, in contrast to her youngest brother, immediately appears to be an ideal pioneer-almost too good to be true. Her love for her family, her cheerful strength in the face of hardship, and her determination to help her family succeed mark her as the heroine of the book; John Bergson readily acknowledges that he must leave the farm in Alexandra's care, for she has imagination and vision that her brothers lack. Though Carl Linstrum also seems to have imagination, or at least artistic vision, his actions suggest he is incapable of offering real, practical support. He clearly has a passionate desire to help Alexandra, but he is hindered by a lack of belief in his abilities.
With John Bergson's death, the focus shifts to the second-generation. The Bergson family, Carl, and Marie were brought to this land as children, and now they must see what they can make of themselves with the land. It might seem odd that Cather skips over John Bergson's death, but this is a novel about the struggle of life, the need to move on, and so Cather naturally emphasizes Alexandra's push towards survival and success rather than John's death.
When the Bergson's and Carl go to visit Ivar, this shift in perspective takes full effect. The characters in the scene reveal a great deal in the way that they interact with Old Ivar. Alexandra and Carl accept and find value in the old man's unique nature. They are able to see his wisdom beneath his odd appearance and behavior. In contrast, Ivar makes Lou and Oscar uncomfortable. These brothers are willing to accompany their sister, but as soon as they arrive, they choose to stand apart with their horses, rather than expose themselves to Ivar's eccentricities. Emil reveals himself to be easily influenced. He agrees with Lou and Oscar's suspicion of Ivar, but when he sees his home and hears about his birds, he begins to think that Ivar's lifestyle is quite attractive. His bond with his sister elevates him above his brothers, but Emil continues to demonstrate a lack of independent action. At the end of the section, Cather emphasizes Alexandra's independence and vision as she contentedly plans for the future; her brothers and Carl, meanwhile, find fleeting happiness in the present.