Orphan Train

Orphan Train

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Belonging and Connection Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Belonging and Connection Theme Icon
Self and Identity Theme Icon
Safety and Survival Theme Icon
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Secrets, Reality, and Illusions Theme Icon
Hope and Skepticism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Orphan Train, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Belonging and Connection Theme Icon

Molly Ayer and Vivian Daly, two women born in different places and eras and who were orphaned as young children, both struggle to find a sense of home and belonging. Because of the loss and betrayal they have suffered, they each find it difficult to open their hearts to new people. Ultimately, however, the two women form a friendship through storytelling and mutual acts of care and acceptance. Even though they both lack a conventional family, they find a sense of belonging and connection in their friendship with each other.

As orphaned children, Molly and Vivian (born “Niamh Power” and then renamed “Dorothy”) both suffer from loneliness and detachment resulting from having no family or community where they belong. Even when their physical needs are met, they seldom feel truly wanted by others. For example, as a child living in temporary adoptive homes, Vivian lives in constant fear of being thrown out. And even though she eventually finds a stable home, she continues to live in fear that she isn’t wanted.

Even when Vivian and Molly do feel wanted, they have trouble identifying with the emotions of others. For both women, this results in an overall feeling of disconnection. After multiple dangerous and uncaring foster families, Vivian is eventually placed with the Nielsens, a loving, safe family who come to see her as their daughter. But even though she is safe and cared for, Vivian doesn’t identify with the Nielsens or feel a sense of belonging with them. Vivian is from Ireland, and her adoptive parents express little interest in her culture and her family background. Instead, they expect her to assimilate seamlessly to their way of life, religion, and culture. They care for her, but they don’t fully see who she is. She respects and appreciates them, but she struggles to return their love.

Similarly, Molly has trouble forming friendships with her peers. Moving around frequently has made her feel like a perpetual outsider wherever she goes. Unlike Vivian, Molly hasn’t found a stable adoptive family: she continues to bounce between foster families throughout her childhood. With her foster parents Dina and Ralph, as with many foster parents before them, Molly feels that her place in their home is precarious and conditional. When Dina ultimately kicks Molly out, Molly is unsurprised. With the exception of her biological parents, most of the adults in Molly’s life haven’t made her feel loved or understood. It’s only when Molly moves in with Vivian that she finally feels a sense of unconditional love and acceptance.

Within the novel, being unconditionally loved and accepted is a prerequisite for feeling a sense of belonging. This is the kind of love that is generally provided by biological family members. Even though Vivian’s Mam was often neglectful and her Da was an alcoholic, she at least felt a sense of belonging with her family. Likewise, Molly felt a sense of unconditional love and belonging with her biological parents, even though her parents weren’t always able to provide materially or offer emotional support. For both girls, their families have an even deeper sense of belonging because of their shared cultural identity (Vivian’s family is Irish and Molly’s father is Penobscot Indian). When they were orphaned, both girls struggled to find a new sense of belonging and connection in their adoptive and foster care homes.

Over the course of the novel, both women come to realize that shared experiences can also help to build a sense of common identity. Even though Molly and Vivian have different backgrounds and a wide age difference, they share the common experience of having been orphaned as children. Their shared experience gives them insight into each other’s experiences, and this in turn gives them a sense of belonging and connection with each other. They become like family to one another: they are able to provide each other with deeper support than the foster/adoptive families and friends they’ve had throughout their lives. Through the emotional progress they spur in each other, both women are able to open their hearts to new and healthier relationships with others. Molly takes steps to improve her relationships with her boyfriend, Jack, by becoming more honest with him, and after decades Vivian finally reopens her heart to love and family by making contact with the daughter she gave up for adoption. As they move forward in their other relationships, their friendship continues to provide them each with a central source of love and support.

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Belonging and Connection Quotes in Orphan Train

Below you will find the important quotes in Orphan Train related to the theme of Belonging and Connection.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The charms are all she has left of what used to be her life.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Mr. Ayer / Molly’s Father
Related Symbols: The Three Pewter Charms / Molly’s Charm Necklace
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

On the night of this passage, Molly’s foster parents, Ralph and Dina, are arguing in the other room about whether or not to let Molly stay with them. Molly has recently been arrested, and she feels certain that Dina will persuade Ralph to kick her out. Whenever she fears being displaced, she puts on the charm necklace her father gave her for her eighth birthday.

The necklace has three animal charms, each representing a symbolic animal in Penobscot culture (at least as her father described them). The charms represent Molly’s connection to her Penobscot origins, as well as her connection to her parents. After her father’s death and her mother’s imprisonment, Molly’s life changed completely. The loss of her parents meant the loss of her family, her home, and her connection to her cultural origins. Molly keeps the necklace as a link to her past and a reminder of the parents who loved her. By putting on the necklace when she fears being displaced, Molly comforts herself with the memory of love, belonging, and a sense of identity.


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Even after getting into trouble like this and probably getting sent away, she knows she’d never have asked Jack to buy the book. If there is one thing she hates most about being in the foster care system, it’s this dependence on people you barely know, your vulnerability to their whims. She has learned not to expect anything from anybody.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Jack
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Molly has just admitted to her boyfriend, Jack, that she was guilty of the stealing the book she was arrested for. Jack is disappointed by the news, and tells Molly she should just have asked him to buy the book for her. As Molly’s thoughts illustrate, she would rather face serious consequences than ask for Jack’s financial help.

As a child growing up in the foster care system, Molly has been forced to rely on strangers to provide for all of her needs. Her use of the word “whims” implies that the unpredictability of her adult caregivers has taught her not to have high expectations of others. Being vulnerable to other people is emotionally dangerous because it can lead to rejection and disappointment. To preserve her emotional health, Molly has learned to become as independent from others as possible. Even though Jack wants to help Molly, she isn’t ready for the kind of vulnerability and emotional entanglement that he expects.

But Mr. Schatzman frowns and shakes his head, and it’s then that I realize just how alone I am. There is no adult on this side of the Atlantic who has reason to take any interest in me, no one to guide me onto a boat or pay for my passage. I am a burden to society, and nobody’s responsibility.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Mr. and Mrs. Schatzman
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

A few days after the house fire that killed her father and led to her mother’s commitment to a mental hospital, Niamh asks Mr. Schatzman if he thinks there is any chance he could help her find relatives in Ireland. Mr. Schatzman “shakes his head,” implying that he either has no way of finding them, or no interest in making the effort.

Mr. Schatzman’s response shows his lack of personal investment in resolving Niamh’s situation. This, coupled with the realization that she has no way of contacting her family in Ireland, makes Niamh realize “how alone” she has become. As an orphan, she has not only lost the people close to her, but been left without anyone who is “responsible” for her. Her reflections illustrate the novel’s interest in the psychological reality of orphaned children. As a child, Niamh depends on the consistent care of adult guardians to provide for and protect her. More than an adult experiencing loss, a child experiencing loss is left with an uncertain and vulnerable future.

No one feels sorry for me because I’ve lost my family. Each of us has a sad tale; we wouldn’t be here otherwise. The general feeling is that it’s best not to talk about the past, that the quickest relief will come in forgetting.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

At this moment, nine-year-old Niamh is with a large group of other orphaned children under the care of the Children’s Aid Society. They are all awaiting the arrival of the orphan train, which will carry them to towns throughout the Midwest where they will be given up for adoption to new families.

Rather than feeling a sense of comfort among other orphans, the desperate situation of the other children only normalizes and minimizes Niamh’s pain. The focus of the Children’s Aid Society and the adults helping to operate the orphan train is to find new homes for the children and to provide for their basic needs until they are adopted out. With the energy and resources of the staff focused only on ensuring the children’s physical survival, there is no opportunity for Niamh, or any individual child, to have their emotional needs met. Further, each child is focused on his or her own pain and survival, leaving them no space to feel sorry for or comfort one another. This passage emphasizes the difference between physical and emotional needs. It further shows how one’s own pain can make it difficult to feel empathy. Finally, it underscores the theme in Vivian’s (Niamh’s) life of pretending to “forget” the past as a coping mechanism.

How strange, I think – that I am in a place my parents have never been and will never see. How strange that I am here and they are gone. I touch the claddagh cross around my neck.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Patrick Power/ “Da”, Mary Power/ “Mam”
Related Symbols: The Claddagh Cross / Vivian’s Necklace
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

The orphan train has pulled into the Minneapolis station, where the first group of children will be selected and adopted by local families. As Niamh exits the train and enters the station, she considers what it means to come to a place where her parents have never been. Her parents were with her in Ireland and with her in New York, but now, for the first time, she is experiencing a new part of the world completely without them.

Niamh’s realization at this moment reveals her growing awareness of herself as a separate entity from her parents. Until now, her sense of self has been largely intertwined with her family. The very idea that she could experience a place they have never been and will never see is confounding; it means that even after their death, she as an individual continues to live and exist. This speaks to a key element of Niamh’s journey through life as she struggles to cope with loss and maintain a sense of purpose in life. By touching her claddagh cross, a gift from her Gram in Ireland, she comforts herself by holding onto the one thing she has left that connects her to her family. Even though they are gone, the necklace symbolizes her enduring connection as she keeps her memories of them with her.

To her surprise, Molly feels a lump in her throat. She swallows, pushing it down. How ridiculous – an old lady gives her a moldy book she has no use for, and she chokes up. She must be getting her period.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Related Symbols: The Attic / Boxes in the Attic
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly after beginning the project of cleaning out Vivian’s attic, Molly and Vivian find a copy of Anne of Green Gables. The book, Vivian explains, was a gift from her favorite teacher, Miss Larsen. Molly is surprised to find herself feeling moved by the gesture of Vivian’s gift. At this point, Molly doesn’t yet know the story of Vivian’s life as an orphan, nor does she understand the important role that Miss Larsen played in Vivian’s life.

As someone who deeply loves books and has trouble connecting with other humans, Molly finds a sense of companionship with the characters in books. Molly’s entire community service project is the consequence of her arrest for stealing a library copy of Jane Eyre – just because she wanted to “have” it for her very own. The gift of a book – especially one with sentimental value – speaks to something that already matters deeply to Molly. Further, by giving Molly a beloved book, Vivian shows that she cares about Molly’s hobbies and that she wants to connect with her over shared interests. To Molly, who feels uncared for by her foster parents, this genuine effort to make a connection is compelling. Yet at the same time, Molly clearly tries to push her emotions aside, and for now maintains her façade of cynicism.

I keep forgetting to answer to Dorothy. But in a way I am glad to have a new identity. It makes it easier to let go of so much else. I’m not the same Niamh who left her Gram and aunties and uncles in Kinvara and came across the ocean on the Agnes Pauline, who lived with her family on Elizabeth Street. No, I am Dorothy now.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Gram, Raymond Byrne, Lois Byrne
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Byrnes took Niamh home, they changed her name to the more American sounding “Dorothy.” Even though they didn’t ask for her consent before giving her a new name, Niamh is now “glad” that the new name gives her a new identity. Having a new name allows her to more easily compartmentalize her past and present experiences. When she says this “makes it easier to let go,” she implies that having a new identity makes it easier to repress the grief, anger, and loneliness triggered by her immense losses. This allows her to create distance between her past and present selves, which enables her to repress her sense of attachment and longing for the family she lost.

I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Raymond Byrne, Lois Byrne, Mr. Sorenson
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

At this moment, Mr. Sorenson, a social worker with the Children’s Aid Society, has come to take Niamh from the Byrnes and place her with a new family. Mr. Sorenson’s visit came as a surprise to Niamh, who didn’t know that the Byrnes didn’t want to keep her any longer. Even though Mr. Sorenson explained the Byrnes’ rationale in terms of their economic situation, Niamh nevertheless felt an immense sense of rejection.

The experience of being displaced without any warning reminds Niamh that she isn’t secure anywhere, and that she can be thrown out whenever she becomes an inconvenience. Her experience with the Byrnes, who neglected and exploited her, shows her the human capacity for selfishness and cruelty, and when they throw her out, she is overwhelmed by the feeling that she doesn’t have any control over her surroundings. Her unmet need for love and care leaves her with a sense of detachment from others, which makes it difficult for her to feel empathy. Like Molly, she learns to create the illusion of normalcy to mask her inner feelings of hurt and disillusionment.

He’s always making excuses – “She didn’t mean nothing by it,” “She’s yanking your chain” – when Dina does things like intone “the Tribe has spoken” when Molly expresses an opinion. “You need to stop taking yourself so seriously, little girl,” Dina said when Molly asked her to knock it off. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re going to have a very hard life.”

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Ralph Thibodeaus, Dina Thibodeaus
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

At dinner one night, Ralph and Molly discuss Molly’s community service project with Vivian. During the conversation, Dina realizes that she went to high school with Terry, who is Jack’s mother and Vivian’s housekeeper. Dina shamelessly expresses her feeling of superiority over Terry for her social status and because Terry had a baby with a Mexican man. When Molly corrects Dina by saying that Jack’s father was Dominican, Dina becomes defensive and the two women begin arguing. Ralph tries to end the fight. To herself, Molly thinks about Ralph’s habit of mediating fights by downplaying Dina’s comments.

This passage demonstrates how Dina trivializes Molly’s opinions and identity, and how Ralph fails Molly by ignoring and downplaying the severity of Dina’s words. By saying things like “the Tribe has spoken,” Dina makes a mockery of Molly’s Penobscot ethnicity. This highlights Dina’s lack of cultural sensitivity and her failure to acknowledge the value of Molly’s identity. Her comment that Molly shouldn’t take herself “so seriously” when Molly becomes offended also shows Dina’s refusal to acknowledge the validity of Molly’s feelings, and her defense that she’s trying to spare Molly a “very hard life” is almost laughably tone-deaf, considering how hard Molly’s life already is.

Maybe it’ll be a stretch to find drama in Vivian’s portage – a happy, stable life does not an interesting story make, right? But even the rich have their problems, or so Molly’s heard. It will be her task to extract them.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Related Symbols: Portaging
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

Molly’s history teacher, Mr. Reed, has given the class the assignment of interviewing an older person in their lives. As part of a lesson on Wabanaki culture and the practice of “portaging,” Molly must ask her subject to describe the journeys they have taken in their life. Because Molly doesn’t have any other older relatives or neighbors, she has decided to interview Vivian.

As her thoughts reveal, Molly has a false perception of Vivian’s story because she doesn’t yet know about Vivian’s past. Based on her superficial perception of Vivian, Molly thinks that Vivian has led a stable, easy, and affluent life. This highlights the novel’s thematic emphasis on the power of illusions to alter perception. In this case, Vivian’s seemingly normal, untroubled life creates an illusion about her experiences and her personality. Only through their later experience of mutual storytelling do the two women discover the truth about how much they share in common.

“Well,” Molly says, “I think the boat represents what you take with you – the essential things – from place to place. And the water – well, I think it’s the place you’re always trying to get to.”

Related Characters: Molly Ayer (speaker), Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Related Symbols: Portaging
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Molly is beginning her interview with Vivian for her portaging project. The Wabanaki people, Molly explains, carried everything they needed with them each time they moved from one body of water to another in search of a new home. Molly asks Vivian to describe what she has chosen to keep with her and what to leave behind as she has moved forward in her own life journey. Molly’s “portaging” project gives her the opportunity to learn about Vivian’s journeys, as well as the chance to discover more about the meaning of her own.

As Molly’s explanation implies, a person’s “boat” (that which is being carried in the portage) represents the things one carries through life, and the “water” (where the boat will be set down again) represents the ultimate goal toward which one is always striving. This passage highlights the importance the novel places on carrying important memories and connections into the future, even after loss and change. It also highlights the importance of moving forward, and suggests that connections to the past are essential for building a meaningful future.

“I will help you find a home,” she says gently. “A place that is safe and clean, where you’ll be treated like a ten-year-old-girl. I promise you that.”

Related Characters: Miss Larsen (speaker), Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the morning that Mr. Post and Miss Larsen help Niamh (called “Dorothy” at the time) after discovering her sleeping on the schoolhouse porch. The night before, Mr. Grote sexually abused Niamh. When his wife found him, she and her husband kicked Niamh out into the cold winter night, and Niamh walked four miles in the snow to get to the schoolhouse. Upon hearing the details of Niamh’s story, Miss Larsen promises to help Niamh find a safe new home.

As Miss Larsen’s words express, one of the central problems with Niamh’s temporary placements is that she has not been given the care, love, and protection that children need. Instead, she has been exploited for her labor (both physical and emotional), left to care for herself, and been the victim of adult sexual advances. In these ways, she has been treated like an adult rather than like a child. As this passage suggests, one of Niamh’s central struggles is finding a home where she is cared for and loved, and simply allowed to have a childhood.

Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later […] So yes – Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process – in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”, Jack
Related Symbols: The Attic / Boxes in the Attic
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Molly is having an argument with Jack. After noticing that Molly hasn’t been successful in convincing Vivian to get rid of things in her attic, Jack tells Molly he is worried that it will appear to Terry, who is his mother and Vivian’s housekeeper, like Molly isn’t doing her job. Molly reacts defensively. In her view, the progress she and Vivian have made is emotional rather than physical. At this point, Molly has learned many of the details of Vivian’s past.

In Molly’s view, the true purpose of the attic project isn’t to clean out the attic, but to allow Vivian the opportunity to sort through her past, acknowledging and making peace with her memories. The attic represents all of the unprocessed and unfinished business of Vivian’s life. Molly’s role is to hear Vivian’s story and to help her process and come to terms with the material of her life. Molly knows that the objects in the attic serve as props that give Vivian the framework for talking about her past.

But over and over, Molly begins to understand as she listens to the tapes, Vivian has come back to the idea that the people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most ordinary moments. They are with us in the grocery store as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Related Symbols: The Attic / Boxes in the Attic
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

Molly is on the bus, listening to the tapes of her interviews with Vivian for her “portaging” project. As she listens, she begins to discover certain themes in Vivian’s storytelling.

As Vivian’s expressions suggest, she considers her lost loved ones to be like “ghosts” who continue to “haunt” her everyday life. This suggests that rather than providing peaceful memories, Vivian’s connection to her past is riddled with unresolved and unfinished business. Like ghosts, the people from Vivian’s past have something left to tell her. This is because Vivian hasn’t come to terms with or processed the pain, loss, and regret she feels in relation to her past. Until she can make peace with the past and at least try to reunite with her remaining family members, Vivian will continue to feel “haunted.”

They don’t seem eager to learn about me, but then again, few people are. I get the sense that my abandonment, and the circumstances that brought me to them, matter little to them, compared to the need I might fill in their lives.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Viola Nielsen, Mr. Nielsen
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Niamh has just been introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen, who are asking her questions in order to determine if she will be a good fit for their household. As her thoughts suggest, the Nielsens have expressed very little interest in Niamh’s past or her family of origin. Niamh interprets this as evidence that they are more concerned with how and whether she will fulfill a “need” they have in their own lives.

Though they have only just met, this first interaction lays the groundwork for the future of the Nielsens’ relationship with Niamh. As the novel later shows, Niamh never comes to see them as her true parents. In part, the Nielsens fail to connect with Niamh on a deep emotional level because they never make the effort to understand her past or her feelings about that past, and how this has shaped her sense of identity.

“Ah, well,” Vivian says. “I suppose we all come under false pretenses one way or another, don’t we?”

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Molly Ayer
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

On the first night Molly stays at Vivian’s house (after Dina and Ralph have kicked her out), the two women have a long, heartfelt conversation. Molly tells Vivian the full story of her life. She also reveals the secret she had kept from Vivian: that her community service hours in Vivian’s attic were required to fulfill her sentence for stealing the library book, and not for a school project. Molly apologizes to Vivian for lying to her, and specifically for “coming into [Vivian’s] house under false pretenses.” Vivian’s response is shown in this quote.

Instead of expressing a sense of outrage or betrayal, Vivian responds to Molly’s confession with forgiveness and empathy. This demonstrates Vivian’s nonjudgmental character and her personal understanding of Molly’s situation. Her comment also captures one of the central themes of the novel: the idea that everyone, whether intentionally or not, relies on or creates illusions to make it through life. Truthfulness, on the other hand, is rare and requires vulnerability to display in front of another human. As Vivian and Molly’s relationships demonstrates, full honesty with another person about one’s self requires trust and effort.

We both start laughing – at the absurdity of our shared experiences, the relief of recognition. We cling to each other like survivors of a shipwreck, astonished that neither of us drowned.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Dutchy / Hans / Luke Maynard
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

Vivian and Dutchy, now in their early twenties, have just reunited by chance at the Grand Hotel where Dutchy performs in Minneapolis. They are shocked and overjoyed to have found each other after so many years. Vivian describes her and Dutchy’s feeling of instant connection in the moments after they discover each other in the hotel lobby.

As Vivian’s comments suggest, Dutchy and Vivian have a strong bond forged by their “shared experiences” of riding the orphan train and moving between unstable families in the years afterward. The “shipwreck” in Vivian’s analogy encompasses their loss and displacement, and all the associated feelings of isolation, rejection, and insecurity. They both survived a traumatic experience that was witnessed by nobody else they know, so it is as if they are the sole “survivors of a shipwreck.” Their ability to see and identify with each other then comes as a “relief” to the feelings of isolation they normally have with others.

Lying in that hospital bed I feel all of it: the terrible weight of sorrow, the crumbling of my dreams. I sob uncontrollably for all that I’ve lost – the love of my life, my family, a future I’d dared to envision. And in that moment I make a decision. I can’t go through this again. I can’t give myself to someone so completely only to lose them. I don’t want, ever again, to experience the loss of someone I love beyond reason.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Dutchy / Hans / Luke Maynard, Sarah Dunnell/ “May”
Page Number: 246-247
Explanation and Analysis:

While giving birth to her daughter, Vivian finally feels the full impact of her grief over losing Dutchy. Even though it has been months since Dutchy’s death, Vivian has spent the time occupying herself with work and social activities, allowing her to repress her sadness. When the emotions and pain of child labor finally force Vivian to face her grief, then, she is unable to tolerate it. She determines that because intense love always brings the risk of painful loss, she can’t ever again let herself love someone so much. Knowing she will grow to love her child deeply, she gives her baby away before she can become too attached.

As Vivian’s thought processes describe, she has suffered the losses of many people who were precious to her: her family in Ireland, her family in America, and Dutchy. To Vivian, love has become inextricably linked with loss. Loving someone gives that person the power to destroy her, whether by leaving her or through death. Vivian differentiates this kind of powerful love from other attachment by calling it a “love beyond reason.” In saying she doesn’t want to “give” herself to someone so “completely,” she makes it clear that deep love requires her to give away a part of herself. Doing so is emotionally dangerous for Vivian because she has already lost many important people who had a “part” of “herself.” By giving her daughter away, she attempts to survive emotionally by preserving what remains of her “self.”

She can sleep with the door open, wander around freely, come and go without someone watching her every move. She hadn’t realized how much of a toll the years of judgment and criticism, implied and expressed, had taken on her. It’s as if she’s been walking on a wire, trying to keep her balance, and now, for the first time, she is on solid ground.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

After Molly’s unexpected visit to Vivian’s house, Vivian invites Molly to move in with her. In this passage, Molly describes her overall feeling of freedom and security at Vivian’s house.

In contrast with her series of foster care homes, Molly isn’t afraid that Vivian will react erratically to her choices and mistakes. This is largely because, in contrast with Molly’s relationship to her foster parents, Vivian and Molly have a mutual attachment. They both fill an empty place in each other’s lives, and they provide each other with practical support as well. Unlike Molly’s foster parents, Vivian isn’t suspicious of Molly and doesn’t feel entitled to control her. Because she can relate to Molly’s experiences as an orphan living in strangers’ homes, Vivian creates the kind of secure, low-pressure environment she herself would have wanted as a child. This gives Molly a sense of stability that then allows her to relax in her new home.

Sitting in the rocker in the kitchen, looking out at the water, Molly feels oddly at peace. For the first time since she can remember, her life is beginning to make sense. What up until this moment has felt like a random, disconnected series of unhappy events she now views as necessary steps in a journey toward… enlightenment is perhaps too strong a word, but there are others, less lofty, like self-acceptance and perspective.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Molly has lived with Vivian for several weeks. During this time, Molly has helped Vivian to reconnect with the daughter she gave up for adoption, Sarah. While awaiting Sarah’s arrival on the day of her first visit, Molly reflects on how she has benefited and grown from her friendship with Vivian.

The excitement and immense meaningfulness of Sarah’s visit give Molly the inspiration to reflect deeply on her life and her relationship with Vivian. In contrast with her many years in foster care, Molly is no longer in survival mode. Not only has Vivian given Molly a safe, secure place to live, but she has also given her a sense of companionship and belonging. From that place of belonging, Molly is able to come to terms with her own past and accept herself. Vivian’s parallel story gives Molly insight into her own life, offering Molly a new perspective.

Molly touches Vivian’s shoulder, frail and bony under her thin silk cardigan. She half turns, half smiles, her eyes brimming with tears. Her hand flutters to her clavicle, to the silver chain around her neck, the claddagh charm – those tiny hands clasping a crowned heart: love, loyalty, friendship – a never-ending path that leads away from home and circles back.

Related Characters: Molly Ayer, Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy”, Sarah Dunnell/ “May”
Related Symbols: The Claddagh Cross / Vivian’s Necklace
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

Vivian and Molly go onto Vivian’s porch to meet Sarah, Vivian’s daughter. As they watch Sarah and her family get out of Jack’s car, Molly reaches for Vivian’s shoulder, and Vivian holds onto her claddagh cross. The close third-person narrator, with insight only into Molly’s thoughts, reveals Molly’s understanding of Vivian’s claddagh cross necklace.

Vivian’s cross symbolizes many of the important elements that define this moment in her life: love, loyalty, friendship, and home. Molly’s presence represents the elements of loyalty and friendship, while both Molly and Sarah’s presences represent the element of love. Finally, in Vivian’s case, home is not a physical place, but a sense of family and belonging. Vivian has found her way back home by rebuilding a sense of community, coming to terms with her past and reuniting with her daughter – her only remaining family.

Chapter 3 Quotes

And though I rarely take the claddagh off, as I get older I can’t escape the realization that the only remaining piece of my blood family comes from a woman who pushed her only son and his family out to sea in a boat, knowing full well she’d probably never see them again.

Related Characters: Vivian Daly / Niamh Power / “Dorothy” (speaker), Gram
Related Symbols: The Claddagh Cross / Vivian’s Necklace
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

As Vivian grows up in the Nielsens’ home, her memories of her biological family begin to fade. She keeps her Gram’s claddagh necklace, however, which has held so much meaning to her throughout her life in the United States, and especially since she lost her family and became orphaned. The necklace continues to represent Vivian’s connection to her origins and her memories of her family.

However, as this passage reveals, Vivian’s views of her grandmother have changed over time. As a younger child, she clung to her romanticized memories of her Gram, especially during times of stress. Her Gram represented the most absolute, untainted form of love, and remembering her used to give Vivian a sense of comfort. However, as she matures and learns more about people and herself, she begins to see things in her memories that she didn’t see before. Notably, she begins to realize her Gram’s role in sending her and her family so far away from Ireland, and thus sees the threads of selfishness and disconnection conveyed by her Gram’s actions. Her revised view of her Gram represents her growing awareness of the limitations and defects in every human and in every human relationship. She also realizes that her sense of abandonment and betrayal runs deeper in her family’s past than she had previously thought.