The local aristocracy of Newbern Center, the Whipple family, is running distinctly low on male heirs. It’s decided to adopt one of Dave Cowan’s twin boys. Dave is something of a vagabond, drifting from here to there whenever the wanderlust sets in, unable to imagine how Newbern’s landed residents could be content to stay in such a small town for any length of time. He’s also something of a philosopher, expounding to whoever will listen about the origins of the universe, from when “star dust” clumped together into planets and chemical reactions in the same created the elements, which “electricity or something” shook into life, and after millions of years humans evolved, and will millions of years in the future evolve into something else.
Of his two sons, Wilbur takes after his father — unconventional and rough around the edges, but full of wonder. Merle is well-mannered and highly principled, if more than a little conceited. Sharon Whipple favors Wilbur, believing in the boy’s “gumption”, but he’s overriden by Gideon and Harvey D., who prefer Merle’s “refinement”. After the adoption papers are signed, Merle Cowan becomes Merle Whipple. The two grow up following their separate paths. As far as employment goes, Wilbur samples a bit of everything and gains more or less experience wherever he goes. Merle, having decided (less from actual education than from sheer will) that he’s an intellectual, falls in with a rabble-rousing crowd of trust-fund Bolsheviks, perpetually certain that the revolution is just around the corner. Only when his allowance is cut-off does he return home.
At the break of war, Wilbur enlists and goes to fight in the trenches in France. He returns shell-shocked and prematurely aged. Young Patricia Whipple had also joined up as a front-line nurse. She and Wilbur knew each other as children, but now realize that they love one another and decide to marry.