The Nielsens’ home is large, neat, and well maintained. To Niamh, it seems luxurious. Niamh has her own bedroom and bathroom. Mrs. Nielsen observes Niamh’s eating habits and buys things she likes. They attend church every Sunday, and Niamh “find[s] the rituals comforting.” She likes how the community’s “approval” for the Nielsens spreads to her, something she has never experienced before. The Nielsens have an orderly daily routine: Mr. Nielsen manages the general store, while Mrs. Nielsen manages the home. At her new school, Niamh works hard to erase her accent and fit in with the other children, who seem healthy and cared for. Every afternoon, she works for a few hours at the store. She pities the hungry children she sometimes sees lingering over the candy, and Mr. Nielsen lets her give them free candy at her “discretion.” At dinner, they discuss “the weather, [Niamh’s] homework and the store.”
Unlike the Grotes and Niamh’s birth family, the Nielsens take care of their home and keep a structured life. The care and order of their lives, along with their financial security and generosity, create a safe physical environment, where Niamh no longer has to worry about the risks of cold and hunger. Mrs. Nielsen’s attention to Niamh’s preferred food and Mr. Nielsen’s permission to give candy to poor children also show their care for Niamh, but despite all this they never establish a strong connection with her, and their conversation never broaches topics that would let them get to know Niamh more deeply. Niamh’s desire to share with the hungry children shows how when her own needs are being met, she is able to open up and be caring towards others.
As Christmas approaches, Niamh helps to decorate at the store. While she and Mrs. Nielsen prepare the display trees, Mrs. Nielsen tells her about her life. She is Swedish, and her dark eyes and hair are from her “Gypsy” (Romani) roots. She and Mr. Nielsen thought they were infertile until their daughter, Vivian Nielsen, was born – the same year as “Dorothy.” Niamh asks about the girl’s death, and Mrs. Nielsen tells her the story of how she died of diphtheria. Niamh contemplates Mrs. Nielsen’s painful loss and thinks about losing her own family members. She “feels sorry” for the inner “sadness” that she and Mrs. Nielsen both share.
Despite Mrs. Nielsen’s failure to inquire further about Niamh’s past and her losses, she shares a common “sadness” with Niamh that comes from the unexpected loss of important loved ones. Though they don’t discuss their shared experience of loss, it provides at least a small connection that allows Niamh to feel some emotion for Mrs. Nielsen. Niamh’s ability to “feel sorry” for Mrs. Nielsen (like her concern for the hungry children) shows that her empathy hasn’t entirely disappeared.
At church on Christmas Eve, the pastor gives a sermon “as elemental as a story in a child’s picture book” about “charity and empathy.” He lists the situations of several misfortunate local families. He includes the Grotes, described them as a poor family with four children and a baby just born prematurely. Mrs. Nielsen tells Niamh they will prepare a basket for them. Niamh knows Mrs. Nielsen doesn’t know her “history with them” and that to her, “they’re just another distant calamity.” Coming home that night, Niamh observes that their house is “a pleasant place to return to. A home.”
The pastor’s “elemental” sermon reflects the simplicity of the community’s approach to right and wrong and parallels the simplicity and uncomplicated goodness of the Nielsens’ lives. Mrs. Nielson’s ignorance about Niamh’s history with the Grotes highlights her lack of curiosity about Niamh’s previous adoptive homes and past life in general. This moment also reveals how far away that kind suffering and deprivation is from Niamh’s new life.
Every other week, Niamh joins Mrs. Nielsen in a women’s quilting circle. Surrounded by women, Niamh feels “at ease.” Mrs. Nielsen begins saving fabric remainders so that Niamh can design and make her own quilt with the help of the circle. One Sunday, while polishing the silver together, Mrs. Nielsen offers to help Niamh polish her claddagh cross. Niamh tells her it was from her Gram, but Mrs. Nielsen smiles and asks no questions. Niamh knows that helping her clean the necklace is Mrs. Nielsen’s “way of acknowledging that she knows it holds meaning for [Niamh].”
While individual women in the novel vary greatly in their qualities, circles of women usually symbolize safety and community (for example, the seamstresses at the Byrnes’ and the ladies at Mrs. Murphy’s.) Mrs. Nielsen’s plans for Niamh’s quilt and her help cleaning the necklace show that she expresses her care through actions rather than conversation.
One evening, Mr. Nielsen and Mrs. Nielsen tell Niamh that they have come to see her as their daughter, and they hope she is “beginning” to consider them her parents. They ask her to consider taking the name of their daughter, Vivian Nielsen, who they loved dearly. They give her time to decide, and assure her it won’t alter their love either way. Niamh feels “gratitude, respect [and] appreciation” for them, but she doesn’t feel “a child’s love” or the sense that they will ever be “her people.” Further, taking Vivian’s name seems like a heavy “burden.”
The Nielsens think that they can love Niamh without knowing her inner self, and by giving her Vivian’s name, they imply that the role of “daughter” is transferrable. Their reluctance to know about Niamh’s past has made it easier for them to give her Vivian’s place in their lives, but Niamh’s sense of her own identity and her lack of emotional connection to the Nielsens keeps her from seeing them as her parents.
One day at the store, Niamh hears a familiar voice bartering with Mr. Nielsen. Niamh realizes the man is Mr. Byrne. He appears tired and possibly drunk. When he sees her, he expresses interest in Niamh’s wellbeing. He tells her that after the business busted, Fanny left to live with her daughter. Mrs. Byrne wandered into the snow one day and froze to death miles from their home. Niamh “feels sorry” for Mr. Byrne’s “tattered life” but feels no pity for Mrs. Byrne. She remembers only how she exploited and deprived her. That night Niamh agrees to take Vivian’s name, dawning the beginning of her “new life.” She is “under no illusions” about the life she has “left behind.” A few years later, the Nielsens officially adopt her. She never refers to them as Father and Mother, but she trusts them to “take care of [her]” and knows she “belongs to them.”
The appearance of Mr. Byrne serves as a reminder to Niamh of the uncertainty and mistreatment that defined her life after she lost her parents and before she met the Nielsens. The memory of that life pushes Niamh to cling more closely to the Nielsens. By accepting Vivian’s name, Niamh accepts the parental care and protection they provide her. Her new name also signifies the beginning of a new, better life and the end of all the misery she suffered as “Dorothy,” just as becoming “Dorothy” allowed her to compartmentalize the attachments she and losses she suffered as “Niamh.”
As the years go by, Niamh’s memories of her birth family start to fade. Still, she always wears the claddagh cross. When she is older, she realizes her only token of her birth family is from someone “who pushed her only son and his family out to sea on a boat, knowing full well she’d probably never see them again.”
Over time, Niamh makes space for her new life as Vivian by letting go of her earlier memories. The necklace remains her link to the past, however, even as she increasingly realizes and accepts her Gram’s responsibility in launching the events that separated her from her country and family.