The book opens with the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, or Dunny, and his first encounter with Mrs. Mary Dempster. He was ten years old at that time, on December 27, 1908. He was sledding with his lifelong rival Percy Boyd Staunton, a boy who is spoiled by his father-- Deptford’s richest man. During this time, Percy’s expensive sled failed to win against Dunstan’s older and traditional sled. As Dunny walks back home for dinner, Percy follows him around, taunting him. Percy, being a brat, resorted to throwing snowballs at Dunny who easily dodged them. At the same time, Mr. Dempster, the local priest, and his new wife, Mary, were just going out on one of their nightly walks. It wasn’t considered to be “proper” for a pregnant woman, especially for a priest’s wife, to be seen walking around during the day time. One of the snowball hits Mrs. Dempster in the head, causing her to fall to the ground. Screaming hysterically, her husband assists her as they head back home. The incident with the snowball causes her to go into premature labor. Dunny’s mother, an expert when it comes to these situations, offered to help. Albeit not really approving of Mrs. Dempster in general, Dunny’s mother knew that this was an emergency and wants to be useful as much as possible during these times of need. Paul Dempster, the baby, is brought into the world during the same night. In the 1900s, it was rare for a premature baby to survive, but Paul managed to pull through.
Dunstan gets racked with guilt as baby Paul fights to survive. After all, he was the target for the snowball that hit Mrs. Dempster. Dunny is also keeping the secret of who threw the snowball. The narrator, speaking directly to the reader, mentions that after forty years of teaching, he is now retiring. He reflects on a farewell letter (a rather condescending one, at that) that was published on the college’s newspaper entitled “Farewell to the Cork.” The context of the articles basically said that Dunstan has been a constant figure in the school, but he is rather boring and dry. He becomes upset, as the article has portrayed him to be a stereotypical bachelor academic whose sexuality is questionable. It was also implied that he had a meaningless life and he had no lasting impact on the wisdom of his students. Dunstan heads back to his memoir, which he writes in the form of a letter for the headmaster of the school. He wants to convince the headmaster that his life was full of meaning because of his experiences and that he was able to provide guidance to his students.
Dunstan then shifts back to his past life and continues to narrate an overview about Deptford, Ontario. Deptford is a small town with a population of 500, with churches for every Christian denomination present. The commercial part of town consists of a canning factory, a sawmill, a handful of shops, and a variety of public services. The village dentist is Percy’s father. Dunny’s family isn’t wealthy, but they are well respected. His father overlooks the production of the town’s newspaper and his mother is a very valuable aid for the town doctor. The Ramsay family is considered to be from good Scottish stock with the right practical and moral values that the townsfolk would like to see.
Dunstan continues to narrate about how baby Paul is still struggling to make it. Mrs. Ramsay calls the baby a “fighter” and is spending most of her six months inside the Dempster household. Dunstant eavesdrops on his parents via the stovepipe, guiltily. Mrs. Ramsey told her husband about how Mr. Dempster has resorted to praying that if the baby should die, it’s only fair for the mother to die as well and accompany the baby to heaven.
Dunstan eventually confronts Percy about the snowball incident. Percy becomes defensive and unapologetic about the whole debacle. He threatens Dunstan to not say anything about it. Dunny continues to carry the guilt about what happened.