When, in May 1835, the orphaned Will Smythe is sent from the Poor House to live and work at Stower Farm, it looks as if there could be a rosy future ahead of him. Elderly Farmer and Missus Stower are childless; and local folk speculate that Will may inherit the farm, one day.
These imagined future prospects encourage the impoverished Wyles family to plan for the improvement of their own situation through the marriage of Will to Betsy Wyles, the youngest of Widow Wyles' daughters.
All seems to go according to plan, until - as the farmer predicts - the inevitable disappointments and trials of life spoil the picture, in the same way that thistles, and other weeds, spoil a field of corn.
This is the story of Will and Betsy's struggle against the thistles in the corn. They discover that there is no escape from Fate: what the farmer calls "the nature of things". Can it really be possible that an impoverished orphan boy and the daughter of a harlot will achieve the status of being Farmer and Mrs Smythe of Stower Farm?