"'You know what?' James asked. 'We're the kind that people go off from. First our father and now Momma. I never thought of that before. Whadda you think, Dicey? Is there something wrong about us?' 'I don't know and I don't care.'"
This quote occurs in Chapter 3 of Part One, on the children's third night of travel. James finds himself trying to make sense of what has happened to them, wondering what is wrong with them, and Dicey retorts that she does not care. This passage first of all demonstrates the child's attempts to come to grips with the fact of his abandonment. From a developmental perspective, a young person is much more likely than an adult to attribute the actions of others and events in the world to his or her own behavior. Accordingly, James, left in such a dire situation by his mother, whom he loves and with whom it is consequently difficult for him to find fault, reasons that he or something about him personally is the cause for her departure. This fear settles into the bones of the children, threatening to undermine them as they find that Eunice, though she is willing to take them in, does not really accept them, and as they float through the lives of so many different people. Secondly, the passage demonstrates the difference between James' and Dicey's approach to the implications of their mother's actions: James is logical and discerning, reasoning that since both their father and their mother left them, it is likely that the problem lies within them. Dicey, on the other hand, refuses even to contemplate such a proposition. She merely accepts the facts, clings without reflection or examination to her love for her mother, and focuses on survival.
"Dicey looked at the gravestones about her. She read an inscription: Home is the hunter, home from the hill, and the sailor home from the sea. What a thing to put on a grave. As if to say that being dead was home... Being dead wasn't being home, was it? Unless—and she remember what James had been saying last night—home was the place where you finally stayed, forever and ever. Then this person was home, and nobody would ever be truly home until he, or she, died. It was an awful thought."
In Chapter 7 of Part One, the children sleep in a graveyard after crossing the Connecticut River in a borrowed rowboat late at night. The next morning, Dicey comes across this gravestone and begins contemplating its message. The message returns to Dicey throughout her journey to Crisfield, most significantly when she and her siblings set out for Crisfield on the bus from Bridgeport, when she crosses the Chesapeake Bay and finds herself mesmerized by the constant motion of the waves, and when Gram abruptly asks her about death on their first meeting. This inscription becomes a sort of mantra for Dicey, and, despite her initial consternation at it, she begins to accept it not only as an accurate but a poignant statement. As she travels and fights for the survival of her siblings, Dicey gradually comes to realize that all aspects of life are impermanent, and even the permanence of home is illusory, as the people within homes are constantly growing and changing. With her understanding comes an increasing thirst for change and adventure.
"What good did it do, worrying and making plans, and more plans, if the first plans failed. It was like money. If you had it, good. I you didn't, then you had to find a way to earn it. There was nothing to be gained by fretting over maybes."
In Chapter 6 of Part Two, Dicey, having recently been rescued by Will and Claire from Mr. Rudyard, is contemplating what might happen to the children in Crisfield. Shortly before this point in time, Dicey has become increasingly anxious and controlling about money and trust. She decides the children must walk despite the fact they still have forty dollars and she feels they must earn money by picking tomatoes for Rudyard in case things do not go well with their grandmother. Moreover, after their encounter with Rudyard, Dicey finds herself inspecting every house they pass suspiciously and wondering what will happen if their grandmother is as evil as Mr. Rudyard. Her time with Will and the circus, however, loosens Dicey's grip on her surroundings. Dicey realizes that they were as lucky to be saved by Will as they were unlucky to fall into Rudyard's hands, and she realizes that through the trials they faced during the summer, they have gained the understanding and skill they need to earn money, if and when they need it. Thus, Dicey takes a step Momma perhaps never could take. She realizes that the fact they have come this far testifies to their ability to cope, and trusts in that ability.
"Dicey noticed from above what could not be seen from below. There were strong twisted wires running around the tree. 'Why is it wired?' she asked. 'Because paper mulberries are fragile,' her grandmother answered. 'It's the way they spread out at the top, it's the way they grow. If you didn't brace it, the weight of the leaves and the growing branches would pull the tree apart. Like families.'"
In Chapter 8 of Part Two, shortly after Dicey and her siblings have arrived at their grandmother's, Dicey takes notice of the huge tree in the front yard. Gram's words about the tree and what it symbolizes resonate both with Dicey and with Gram. Dicey knows how difficult it can be to keep a family together. Dicey's determination forms the wire that holds her siblings together against the weight of the adult world, which would pull them apart from each other. To Gram, the words are even more complex. The tree, after all, is not pulled apart by outside forces, but by itself. Gram is first of all alluding to families in general: as children and parents grow older, their own adventures and desires take them farther and farther away from each other, and need some sort of metaphorical wire to counter the weight of that spreading growth. At the same time, Gram is referring to her own immediate family. The family's own weight—the weight of its promises, stubbornness, and pride—have pulled it apart.
"'Your Momma was a kind child,' her grandmother said. 'But she never forgave her father.' 'Did you?' Dicey asked. 'No. Yes.' Somehow this made sense to Dicey. It let her know that she would be all right and her family would be all right. They wouldn't be children forever. They didn't have to have a place, they just had to have themselves."
Dicey gains comfort from this ambiguous exchange in Chapter 11 of Part Two during her conversation with Gram in the kitchen after their fight over Sammy. Dicey has resigned herself to the idea of leaving Gram's place the next day, but gratefully accepts her explanation for whether her Momma forgave her father. For some reason, Gram's contradictory answer to whether she forgave her husband for his harshness relieves Dicey. First, it communicates her grandmother's internal contradictions to her once again, the contradictions that earlier made Dicey think Gram would let them stay. Secondly, the contradiction in Gram's answer causes Dicey to realize that it is natural for human beings to experience internal contradictions, and that uncertainty itself does not have to be an insurmountable barrier to living and growing up. Gram's words prove Dicey's nascent understanding that two contradictory truths and two contradictory desires can exist inside one sane person at the same time.