Caroline Quiner, who grew up to be Laura Ingalls' mother, is a quiet five year old as the story begins. It is 1845 and the Quiner family is living in the frontier town of Brookfield, Wisconsin. Caroline lives with her mother, grandmother and siblings Martha, Joseph, Henry, Eliza and baby brother Thomas. One year ago Caroline's father Henry was lost at sea and presumed dead. Life has been difficult for the Quiner family ever since. Caroline misses her father terribly and remembers how he called her "Brownbraid" due to the long dark braid she wore in her hair. Caroline tries her best to help out mother with the chores and with Eliza, but she can't help but notice how much her mother has aged in the last year. Their grandmother recounts tales of his youthful misadventures and his love of butter and biscuits. Caroline keeps herself busy with her outdoor chores: feeding the chickens, checking the crops and collecting eggs. Martha and Caroline help Mother with the grueling task of carrying water buckets to do the wash.
Although little Eliza begs to help, Mother tells her that she's too young to do such a task. Washing the clothes is a depressing chore for Martha and Caroline for they are forced to realize how poor the family is by their lack of clothes. In quiet times Caroline sits with her grandmother and works on her sewing and stitching. Mother doesn't relish going to town due to her belief that it is too crowded. It is a rare treat when Mother invites Caroline and Henry to accompany her to town on a fine autumn day. Caroline manages to get up close and personal with a stagecoach and she is mesmerized by the hubbub that it brings to the town. Caroline vows to travel by stagecoach one day! As an early frost settles in the Quiner family frets about the fate of their fall harvest. Mother tells the children that first thing in the morning they will pick all of the crop that they are able to pick. As the children drift off to sleep they hear a loud bang and upon looking outside they see their mother on her hands and knees picking the crop as rain and darkness surround her. Caroline has never felt such dread in her life. As morning dawns Caroline awakens to the worst news possible - the entire fall harvest has been ruined. As fall turns to winter the Quiners face forbidding weather and the imminent threat of starvation.
This report prepared by Sandra Calhoune