Niamh wakes up early on a Monday morning, and cheerfully takes special care getting dressed for school. At breakfast, she asks Mr. Byrne and Mrs. Byrne how to get to the schoolhouse and what time she is expected. They glance at each other before Mrs. Byrne announces that she “isn’t ready.” Niamh reminds them of their contract with the Children’s Aid. Mrs. Byrne continues to make excuses, eventually implying that Niamh’s previous subpar schooling in the “slums” made her unprepared for the local schoolhouse. Because of her indignation and “because she hasn’t asked,” Niamh tells Mrs. Byrne all about her fourth grade class in New York and how much she loves school. Mrs. Byrne tells Niamh that she “doesn’t want to hear another word” because now they “are the ones who decide what’s best for [her].” Nobody brings up the “subject of school” again.
The innocent image of Niamh happily getting ready for her first day of school only makes the reality of the Byrnes’ intentions all the more insidious and heartbreaking. The phrase “because she hasn’t asked” and the timing of Niamh’s monologue about her fourth grade class suggests that she is tired of the Byrnes’ indifference to her life and her needs as a child. School was the one basic right Niamh thought the Byrnes couldn’t take away from her. Their actions imply that they have no intentions of keeping their contract with the Children’s Aid, so Niamh is effectively left without any protection of her rights.
As the days pass, Niamh becomes curious about what Mrs. Byrne “does with her time” besides coming in often to manage the seamstresses. Mrs. Byrne continues to scold Niamh frequently. She “has many rules” that Niamh tries to remember, one of which is that the doors of the house are to remain shut. At night in her cold pallet, Niamh feels deeply alone. When they are alone, Mr. Byrne is kind to Niamh and enjoys talking about his family in Ireland. Niamh recalls how her Da talked proudly of Irish history, while history just made her Mam sad. At one point, Mr. Byrne tells her she “could be his daughter” with her name and red hair. Niamh decides she is glad that they call her “Dorothy” because it makes it easier to forget her life as Niamh with her family in Ireland and New York.
The closed doors of the house and Niamh’s cold pallet bed symbolize the isolation and coldness of the atmosphere Mrs. Byrne creates for Niamh. Even though Niamh is with other girls and women all day, she is vulnerable and alone because her emotional (and developmental) need for love and care is going unmet. Mr. Byrne’s interest in Niamh means very little when he does nothing to actually improve Niamh’s daily life. Niamh accepts the name “Dorothy” because it allows her to protect and compartmentalize her true identity, keeping it safe from those around her.
One day, Mrs. Byrne tells “Dorothy” that she’s heard from Mary that she is misbehaving. Niamh contests that it isn’t true. Mrs. Byrne threatens to send her back to the Children’s Aid, which she claims she would have already done if it weren’t for Mr. Byrne. She tells Niamh they only chose her because of Mr. Byrne’s attachment to Ireland. The next day, Mrs. Byrne sends Niamh on an errand in town. She scolds Niamh for asking for directions, insisting she should have memorized it on first drive to their home. Fanny volunteers to go with Niamh, and jokes with her during their walk. After they buy supplies, Fanny gives Niamh a penny for candy. On the way home, Fanny explains that Mary hates Niamh because she fears that Niamh’s free labor will put her out of a job. Niamh now realizes why the Byrnes chose her.
Even when Niamh is trying her best to follow the rules and do well in her work, she can’t seem to appease Mary or Mrs. Byrne. This scene illustrates how futile Niamh’s efforts are because the entire situation is set up to keep her afraid and subjugated. Fanny’s kindness is Niamh’s one saving grace – Fanny, unlike any of the people there, sees and treats Niamh like a child (and like a person with worth). Niamh’s reaction when she realizes that the Byrnes chose her for free labor serves as a reminder that despite her growing skepticism, Niamh is still an innocent and trusting child.
For weeks, Niamh wears only the two dresses she was given by the Children’s Aid society. One day, Mrs. Byrne expresses concern for Niamh’s limited wardrobe. She decides to take her shopping for “sturdy and inexpensive” fabric so she can sew herself some dresses. Afterward, Mrs. Byrne takes Niamh to buy a coat and two sweaters on discount. That night, she notices “Dorothy’s” claddagh cross for the first time. She disdainfully asks about it, and Niamh tells the story of how it came from her Gram and symbolizes love and friendship. Mrs. Byrne considers making Niamh remove it, but Mr. Byrne defends Niamh’s right to keep her “trinket from home.” Mrs. Byrne contends that Niamh shouldn’t “tell the world she’s Catholic” and remarks on how “unbecoming in a girl” her red hair is already. Mr. Byrne later explains that his wife hates Catholics, “even though she married one.”
This scene represents the only instance of near-decency for Mrs. Byrne. She isn’t obligated to secure new clothing for Niamh, but does so just because she notices that Niamh needs it. Nevertheless, her stinginess and indifference to Niamh’s preferences remain, as she chooses the cheapest fabrics and garments she can find. Niamh shows that she still has a little faith in Mrs. Byrne’s humanity when she tells her the story of how she got her necklace and what it means. Perhaps she thinks that doing so will persuade Mrs. Byrne to let her keep it. Mrs. Byrne’s reaction, however, shows her continued disdain and indifference to Niamh’s culture and identity.