In the one-page introduction to the book, Dicey reflects on the long summer she and her siblings have weathered (see Homecoming ) and finds herself relieved that their travels are over and that they are, at last, home. She feels that she can call Gram's house a home with confidence because Gram will give them the leeway and space they need to be themselves. A few days later, after school has started, Dicey, having just finished painting the barn, finds herself alone. She mentally checks on the whereabouts of each of her siblings: Sammy, her six-year-old brother, is working in the garden, James, her ten-year-old brother, is shopping with Gram, and Maybeth, her nine-year-old sister, is upstairs doing schoolwork. She takes a moment to wonder at the surprises in store for all the Tillermans as they grow to know each other in the coming year.
Dicey remembers back to the afternoon when she and her family eagerly took the old sailboat in the barn—now Dicey's prize possession—and put it into the Bay water. The decrepit boat, which had belonged to one of Dicey's uncles, sank immediately, its boards too dry to hold water out anymore. Instead of expressing any emotion, Dicey immediately began to instruct her siblings in how to take it out. Gram, surprised at Dicey's poise, recommended that Dicey leave the boat in the water so the wood would swell up, and commented on Dicey's determination. Next Dicey turns her thoughts to school, which she considers a waste of time. She has used her time in school to plan how she can get a job. After their summer during which all four Tillerman children survived on very little money and without an adult, Dicey feels compelled to find a job. She finds herself, even though they are much more secure than they were during the summer, worrying about all of her siblings and what might happen to them this year.
Gram and James return in the motorboat from town, lugging groceries. Gram looks at Dicey, who is not wearing a shirt, and tells her she can no longer go around naked. Dicey tries to ignore the comment, but admits glumly to herself that she has begun to notice her breasts growing bigger. After lunch, Dicey goes downtown to try to convince Millie, Gram's old schoolmate and the town's butcher, to give Dicey a job cleaning the store. She reasons with Millie that the cleaner store will attract more customers, and finally, Millie, who seems as interested in companionship as in profits, agrees to hire Dicey. Dicey thinks about the allowance she can now give to her siblings, as well as the money she can give to Gram. She rides toward Gram's house, but finds herself still thinking of their house in Provincetown when she says home.
At dinner, Dicey announces her accomplishment, and though her family members all express approval, Gram and James both tell Dicey she should talk such decisions over with her family first in the future. Gram takes this opportunity to tell the children that she will talk to a lawyer about adopting them. At first, Sammy is reluctant, wondering what will happen if their Momma, who is in a mental hospital in Boston, gets better. When Gram tells Sammy that Momma will simply move in with them if she gets better, everyone agrees to the adoption. After dinner, Dicey tries to teach Maybeth, who struggles in school, about fractions, but the timid girl does not grasp Dicey's lesson. Maybeth then begins playing the piano, which she does skillfully, while Sammy and Gram play checkers and James reads the Bible. Dicey gravitates towards James and together they look at the inner cover of the Bible, which has their grandparents', uncles' and Momma's names and birthdates, in one person's handwriting, and dates of death for their grandfather and Uncle Bullet in another person's handwriting. Gram walks over to them and writes the children's names and birthdates in the Bible, much to everyone's satisfaction. Dicey wanders outside and finds herself thinking of Momma, who, overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising four children on her own, abandoned them. She finds herself frustrated that she can do nothing to remedy the situation, and abruptly returns to the house. Inside, she talks briefly with James, who worries about being an outsider in school.
The next week, Dicey establishes a routine. She sits through school and grows to hate home economics, works at Millie's store, works on her boat, works with Maybeth, and does her homework. The next weekend, she helps Gram with the welfare forms and realizes, to her surprise, that Gram, like Dicey, is a worrier. The following Wednesday gives them something to worry about: Maybeth's music teacher has sent a note home with her, asking Gram to meet with him the next week. Dicey quickly volunteers to see the teacher, but Gram assures Dicey that it is her responsibility to meet with teachers. Dicey feels relieved but does not know how to express it, so she begins helping Gram prepare supper.
For a long and frightening summer, Dicey and her siblings belonged to no one, and the children grew protective of their independence. Their desire for independence affects them as they adjust to Gram. Thus, when their Cousin Eunice agreed, out of a sense of obligation and not out of a sense of love, to take them in and adopt them, the Tillerman children quickly and decisively left Eunice in search of their grandmother. The children decide they can stay with Gram because they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from her. When Gram presents them with the option of being adopted by her, they hesitate and only agree when she has assured them that Momma, if she ever gets better, is welcome there as well. Gram, unlike Eunice, shows a deep respect for the children's independence and responsibility for their own fates. Gram respects that independence by presenting adoption to them as a choice, and proceeding only after they have expressed agreement. Gram again demonstrates her respect and acceptance of them by writing their names in the family Bible, an act that stands in for the formal adoption process and symbolizes the way in which Gram perceives the children as an integral part of the family. The children are now named in and protected by their inclusion in the family Bible, which is the thickest book on the shelves. The Bible itself embodies a vast and rich history, much as they are enclosed in and protected by Gram's warm, snug house.
The family Bible also hints at the deeper history of the Tillerman family, which remains hidden from the children. Dicey observes that the names, birthdates, and marriage dates have been penned in by one hand, probably her grandfather's. The dates of death, however, of her grandfather and uncle, are penned in by another hand, Gram's. This change of hands represents a change of power. First, Dicey's grandfather controlled and authored the vicissitudes of the family's existence. Later, when loss and tragedy set in, Gram took over this power. Her decision to write in the dates of her husband and son's deaths show her will to survive and her determination to hold on to and remember her family, even though her husband's harshness and her tacit support had driven them all away from her. When she pens the children's names into the cover, she is filling in the long gap of silence created by her and her husband's stubbornness. Gram is resuming her role in the family after many years of isolation and solitude.
When Dicey arrives in Crisfield, having successfully shepherded her younger siblings hundreds of miles by foot, bus, car, and boat, Dicey struggles to understand how her role in the family has changed. First of all, although they are now more secure than they have been for months, Dicey begins, almost reflexively, to worry about her brothers and sister. Dicey worries despite the fact that in the final weeks of their journey, she gave up worrying and began instead to rely on their ability to respond to challenging situations. She finds, however, that she now shares responsibility for her siblings with Gram, whom, she discovers, also worries as a way of being ready for unwelcome situations.
Dicey both resents and welcomes her grandmother's assumption of responsibilities. She chafes when Gram chides her for not checking with the family first about finding work, yet she is overcome with relief when Gram assumes responsibility for going in to talk to Maybeth's teacher. Dicey does not quite know how to respond to the fact that she is no longer solely responsible for her siblings. Even while she is alone, whether working on the boat or wandering on the shore at night, she remains conscious of her siblings' whereabouts and needs. Dicey's conflicted desires and inability to be alone foreshadows one of the novel's major themes. Dicey is filled with the tension between letting go of control and things she cannot change, while still reaching out and being a part of the lives of those she loves.