One day, Mrs. Byrne comes into the sewing room and announces that the stock market has crashed. She bemoans that she can’t be expected to pay her employees if she “can’t feed” herself. As the weeks pass, the sewing business declines but the women keep working. Niamh learns that Mr. Byrne had invested heavily in stocks. Despite everyone’s anxiety, Niamh likes being with the seamstresses (except for Mary). As more time passes, Niamh is shocked by the harsh winter. Unlike the other ladies, she doesn’t have gloves to keep her fingers warm in the drafty sewing room. On Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Byrne visit family out of town, leaving Niamh behind. Fanny slips Niamh a gift of fingerless gloves, instructing her to tell the Byrnes she “brought it from home.” Niamh sees the seamstresses as her family now, likening herself to “an abandoned foal that nestles against cows in the barnyard.”
Mrs. Byrne’s proclamation about paying her employees highlights her lack of empathy. After the crash, the Byrnes’ neglectful treatment of Niamh grows even worse. Despite the harsh winter, Fanny senses that they would be displeased that someone gave her gloves. Their choice to leave a child at home alone on Christmas serves as an especially dramatic statement about the extent of their cruelty and disregard. Niamh’s metaphor of the abandoned foal is a reminder that despite her hardening experiences, Niamh is still a child who desperately needs love and a sense of belonging. The comparison illustrates how seeking love is a survival instinct for children.
As the weeks pass, Niamh grows very thin from malnourishment. Mrs. Byrne stops bathing and changing her clothes. One by one, she fires each of the seamstresses, leaving only Fanny and Niamh. One day, a fat man named Mr. Sorenson visits from the Children’s Aid. He is surprised to learn that the Byrnes never had any “intention” of adopting Niamh. He gently explains to Niamh that the Byrnes’ business is suffering and she must be relocated. Despite Mrs. Byrnes’ poor treatment, Niamh is stunned that Mrs. Byrne is sending her away. Mrs. Byrne accuses Niamh of eating “too much.” Mr. Sorenson explains that a “good country” family with four children, the Grotes, has requested a “mother’s helper.” Niamh tries to feel hopeful by imagining a pretty farmhouse with a kind family. The Byrnes don’t even emerge to say farewell when Niamh leaves. Fanny helps Niamh pack and gives her a long hug goodbye.
Mrs. Byrne’s neglectful hygiene suggests the depths of her depression. Mr. Sorenson’s reaction when he hears that the Byrnes had no intention of adopting Niamh reinforces how obviously exploitative their relationship to her was. Niamh’s surprise when she hears that Mrs. Byrne is sending her away suggests that even after all of their cruelty and neglect, she had unconsciously grown to depend on the Byrnes as her caregivers. Even though another place could be better, being displaced and sent out alone again reinforces Niamh’s feeling of being and unprotected in life. It also reinforces how little control she has over her fate.
On the drive to the Grotes, Niamh “almost feels sorry” for Mr. Sorenson, who seems heavy-hearted. He asks repeatedly if she is “comfortable” and takes it upon himself to educate her about Minnesota after discovering how little she has learned about her new home. Niamh tries to nod and smile, but she can’t focus on his words. Instead, she feels herself “retreating to somewhere deep inside.” She ponders how terrible it is for a child to feel like “no one loves you and is taking care of you.” She reflects that she has lost faith in people, grown suspicious, and become too numb to feel empathy.
Niamh’s observations of Mr. Sorenson’s feelings show her emotional intelligence, even at a time when she feels apathetic. Niamh’s reflections illustrate how trauma, instability, and loss impair the ability to trust in and care about others. As a child, Niamh has the basic needs of love, protection, and consistency – all of which have been lost or denied her. Without these, she isn’t able to develop a healthy sense of balance and connection.