As the story begins, Pa is taking Laura 12 miles from home in the dead of winter to her first teaching assignment at Brewster settlement. Laura, only 15 and a schoolgirl herself, is apprehensive as this is both the first time she has left home and the first school she has taught. She is determined to complete her assignment and earn $40 to help her sister Mary, who is attending Vinton College for the Blind in Iowa.
This first school proves difficult for her. Laura must board with the Brewsters in their two-room claim shanty, sleeping on a narrow sofa behind a curtain in their bedroom. The Brewsters are an unhappy family and Laura is deeply uncomfortable observing the way husband and wife quarrel. In one particularly unsettling incident, she wakes in the night to see Mrs. Brewster standing over her husband with a knife. Mrs. Brewster seems to resent Laura particularly, and is rarely pleasant to her.