Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872
One cold winter night, while Mrs. Thacher and two of her neighbors sit around the stove and gossip about neighborhood activities, they are interrupted by a noise at the door. Adeline Thacher Prince lies fallen on the doorstep. In her arms she holds her infant daughter, Nan. Dr. Leslie is sent for at once, but by the next day, Adeline is dead. According to her wishes, Dr. Leslie becomes the little child’s guardian, though she lives with her maternal grandmother.
Nan’s mother left home to work in a textile mill in Lowell. There she fell in love with a young man from Dunport, Maine, and after a short courtship, she married him. The marriage was far from happy. Adeline inherited a wild, rebellious tendency, and it was whispered in Dunport that she eventually started to drink. Furthermore, Adeline resented the strong opposition of her husband’s family to the marriage, and, in particular, the views of her husband’s sister, Miss Nancy Prince. After Adeline’s husband died, she tried for a time to support both herself and the child. When she could do so no longer, she trudged back to Oldfields to die in her mother’s home.
Nan seems to exhibit some of her mother’s traits, for she is mischievous and inclined to pleasure. Her grandmother often thinks her a trial, but to Dr. Leslie she is something quite different. One day, Nan retrieves a fallen bird with a fractured leg and applies a splint, as she saw Dr. Leslie do to his patients. The doctor begins to wonder if Nan inherited some tendency toward medicine from her father. He does not insist that she go to school. He thinks that the training she receives in the woods and the fields is far more beneficial than any she would obtain in the schoolroom.
When Mrs. Thacher dies, Nan goes to live with Dr. Leslie. There is a great feeling of affection between the two. Nan, who continues to go out on calls with the doctor, exhibits much interest in his work. The time comes at last for her to be sent to boarding school. At first, she is shy and rather backward in her studies, but after a while, she makes admirable progress. She would have been completely satisfied with her life had she not wondered, from time to time, about the mysterious aunt of whom she heard only rumors. Mrs. Thacher never explained anything of the girl’s family background to her, and Nan conjures up the figure of a wealthy aristocratic relative who will one day send for her. Miss Prince, who inherited a large estate, regularly sends money to Dr. Leslie to help provide for Nan’s upkeep. The doctor never touches a penny of it. When Adeline died, Miss Prince asked for custody of the child, but Mrs. Thacher and Dr. Leslie refused her request.
When Nan grows older, she tells Dr. Leslie of her desire to study medicine. Although the doctor is aware of the difficulties she will face, he approves heartily of her interest. Yet, the town of Oldfields does not, and many are shocked at the idea of a woman doctor. Nan continues her studies using the doctor’s books, however, and acts as his nurse. She is to continue training at a medical school in a nearby city.
When the time comes for her to leave Oldfields, Nan writes a brief note to her aunt, Miss Prince, and asks if she might visit her father’s sister. Miss Prince, although she fears that Nan might be like her mother, consents to receive her niece. On Nan’s arrival in Dunport, Miss Prince, genuinely pleased with her, helps Nan to make friends and openly acknowledges her young relative. Yet, when Nan expresses her wish to study medicine, everyone is shocked, even Miss Prince, who in a large measure blames Dr. Leslie for Nan’s unladylike desire for a professional career. Nan, although made unhappy by her aunt’s objections, remains adamant.
Her aunt and her friends, however, seek to lead her astray from her work. Miss Prince has a favorite friend, young George Gerry, to whom she intends to leave her money. When Nan grows fond of George, everyone hopes that they will marry. One day, during an outing, Nan and George stop at a farmhouse, and Nan treats a farmer who threw his arm out of joint. Sometime later, George asks Nan to marry him. She refuses, both because she wants to become a doctor and because she is afraid that her inherited characteristics might cause her to be a bad wife.
At last, she tells her aunt that she will return to Oldfields. On her arrival, the doctor, apprehensive that Nan was influenced by Miss Prince and her money, is pleasantly surprised. She is the same Nan as before and all the more ambitious for a successful medical career.
Nan goes away to study. When she returns, Dr. Leslie is older and needs more help in his practice. Nan settles down in Oldfields and slowly the community accepts her. Before many years pass, she succeeds Dr. Leslie in the affections of the men and women of the village.