The novel begins with the fourteen-year-old Norman McGregor packaging a loaf of bread for his uncle, the "village wit", – who ironically nicknames him "Beaut" because of his off-putting appearance – in his mother Nance's Coal Creek bakery (bought with the savings of her late husband/Beaut's father "Cracked" McGregor). Not long after, frustrated by the local miners expecting bread on credit without first settling their debts, Beaut closes the bakery during a miner's strike. That evening, as the now-drunk miners move to ransack the bakery (and assault Beaut), he is saved by a troupe of soldiers marching in formation. After the episode, the bakery remains closed and Nance goes to work at the mining office while Beaut idles about. When Beaut is 18 years old, his mother becomes too ill to work and the young man gets a job as a stableboy. One day, as a prank, his fellow stableboys get Beaut (a teetotaler up to that point) blind drunk with a "horrible mess" made just for that purpose. Having reached a breaking point, Beaut takes the rest of his father's savings and leaves Coal Creek for Chicago on the same evening. He arrives in the City just after the 1893 World's Fair. Despite a shortage of jobs, McGregor easily finds a warehouse job and settles into a routine of work during the day and night school/independent reading at night. One day, in a break from the ordinary, the usually unsocial McGregor gives in to the urging of his neighbor Frank Turner, a barber and amateur violin-maker, and goes to a dance. Despite his aloofness, McGregor meets Edith Carson, a frail, mousy, and somewhat homely milliner/shop owner, with whom he develops a platonic relationship.
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