The story takes place in Indiana, in and around the Limberlost Swamp - at that time, a site of heavy logging and natural oil extraction.
This Bildungsroman is structured as girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-undertakes-an-adventure-to-win-boy-back.
The novel's heroine, Elnora Comstock, is an impoverished young woman who lives with her widowed mother, Katharine Comstock, on the edge of the Limberlost. Elnora faces cold neglect by her mother, a woman who feels ruined by the death of her husband, Robert Comstock, who drowned in quicksand in the swamp. Katharine blames Elnora for his death, because her husband died while she gave birth to their daughter and could not come to his rescue.
The Comstocks make money by selling eggs and other farm products, but Mrs. Comstock refuses to cut down a single tree in the forest, or to delve for oil, as the neighbors around them are doing, even though the added income would make their lives easier.