Mary Cameron lives in Cape Breton, the northernmost part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. There, she enjoys a warm relationship with an old woman she calls Nanny, who regales her with stories of the Gaelic past. The rest of her time, when she isn't working at her father's pharmacy, she completes paint-by-numbers artworks.
On discovering that she is pregnant by her ne'er do well boyfriend, she decides to go to Halifax, the big city in the south, to have her baby. After giving birth, she starts modeling for life-drawing classes and eventually picks up the skills of an artist herself.
Soon, she has become a successful artist and moves back to the house her friend Nanny left her to fill an entirely new role in her community.