On her first night, Mr. Grote tells Niamh (still going by “Dorothy”) she can either sleep with the children or on the couch – except that he often sleeps there. Niamh decides to sleep with the children in a room with bare mattresses and old blankets. The house has no running water or electricity. Niamh soon realizes that Wilma Grote barely gets out of bed and that she and Mr. Grote pay little attention to their children’s needs. When the children try to sleep by their mother, she sometimes lets them and sometimes “pushes them away,” causing them to “wail.” Mrs. Grote mostly ignores Niamh; meanwhile, the children begin to warm to her as their caretaker, especially 2-year-old Gerald Jr. Mr. Grote tells Niamh he requested her because his wife “wouldn’t get out of bed and he didn’t know what else to do.” Niamh feels “abandoned” and “dropped into misery.”
Niamh is still a child who needs parental figures to nurture and care for her, yet instead of finding a family to look after her, she has been assigned a family she must take care of. Not only is Niamh still deprived of the love and care she needs, but she is now responsible for providing love and care to younger children. Mrs. Grote’s constant sleep and disinterest in the people around her (including her children) suggest she may have postpartum depression. Niamh is strongly affected by her new surroundings – the atmosphere of neglect, isolation, and dysfunction only add to her “misery.”
Mr. Grote tells Niamh that his goal is to be “self-sufficient” so that he doesn’t have to work again. He fishes and hunts and keeps a goat, some plants, chickens, and a mule on his land. Their car is broken down, but he walks or rides his mule on the rare occasion that he needs to go into “town.” He doesn’t believe in government, but says he will send Niamh to school to avoid problems with the “authorities.”
Despite his neglectful parenting, Mr. Grote invests at least some time and effort into finding ways to feed his family. His identity seems shaped by his sense of “self-sufficiency.” His infrequent contact with the “town” adds to the sense that the Grotes live an isolated, remote existence.
Niamh rises early on her first day of school. With heated water from the outside pump, she washes herself the best she can without a bath. She feels cheerful and plays with the children. On her walk to the school-bus stop, she realizes for the first time how beautiful the forest is. Mr. Post, who helps run the school, collects her and the other country children (of all ages) and drives them to the schoolhouse in his truck. The teacher, Miss Larsen, is pretty and kind. She keeps soap and clean rags in the indoor bathroom for the children who need them. Miss Larsen offers to call Niamh by her real name, but Niamh decides to be called “Dorothy.” She does well on her reading test, and Miss Larsen gives her a copy of Anne of Green Gables. At recess, Niamh is thrilled to play with the other children. When Mr. Post drops her off, her “footsteps are slow.”
Not only does Niamh seem to enjoy reading and learning, but in her present situation, school provides a stable, safe place that contrasts with the unsafe, neglected atmosphere at the Grotes’. Miss Larsen’s kindness is evident not only in Niamh’s description, but in her actions as well, such as keeping supplies the children may not have access to at home. Her offer to call Niamh her birth name also suggests her respect for Niamh’s culture and identity. Niamh’s joy at playing with the other children points to her relief at finally having a space in which she can act like a normal child.
At first, the food Mr. Grote brings home disgusts Niamh: lots of squirrel meat and some “whiskery” fish, wild turkeys, and deer. But her hunger forces her to overcome her “qualms,” and soon she is cooking squirrel stews. She spends many difficult hours helping Mr. Grote dig up root vegetables from the still-frozen ground, and he teaches her how to plant rice from seeds in the stream. On her birthday, Miss Larsen surprises Niamh with a party and a loaf of Irish currant cake, baked for Niamh by Miss Larsen’s landlady. Niamh’s happiness brings tears into her eyes as she asks: “For me?” The cake “tastes like Ireland” and reminds her of her Gram’s kitchen. That night, Mr. Grote calls birthdays “ridiculous,” saying that he can’t remember his own or his children’s birthdays, just before helping himself to a piece of the cake Niamh brought home.
This passage shows how Niamh’s experiences force her to continually accept and adapt to things she doesn’t like in order to survive – such as the food she finds disgusting. Not only does Niamh take care of the children, she must now help with strenuous farm labor. This shows how, just as with the Byrnes, she is expected to fulfill adult-sized responsibilities. By throwing a birthday celebration for Niamh, Miss Larsen shows how she values Niamh as a child and an individual. In contrast, Mr. Grote’s comments show how little value he places on celebrating his own life or the lives of his children.