The Quick Recap and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for The Wonder by Emma Donoghue are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile’s review of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.
The one-paragraph version: Nurse Lib Wright travel to Ireland on a two-week assignment to observe Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old devoutly religious girl whose parents claim she can live without food. Lib eventually realizes (with the help of William Byrne, a journalist) that Anna was being secretly given food before and is now starving to death. Moreover, Anna is choosing to “fast” and letting people believe it is a miracle because she considers it a sacrifice to save the soul of her recently-deceased brother, who had been molesting her for years. The family does not believe Anna’s claims (of molestation) and the local priest blames Anna for being molested. Lib finally decides to kidnap Anna and make it look like Anna’s remains were burnt up in a fire. The book ends with Lib and William traveling to Australia with Anna, who is eating again.
In Chapter One, Lib Wright is young woman who became a nurse, training under the famed Florence Nightingale, after her husband died. As the book opens, she is travelling to Ireland for a two-week assignment, where she learns that she is being tasked with “observing” a girl named Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl who claims to have abstained from food for the last four months. The girl says she no longer needs it, and a small committee has been formed to help prove or disprove these claims.
To do so, Lib and another nurse named Sister Michael will be switching off 8-hour shifts to watch over Anna at all times. The village Anna is from is run-down and poor. Lib is certain the O’Donnells are fraudsters, and she finds the O’Donnell family too backwards, too pious, too superstitious and poor. Lib finds it suspicious that the O’Donnells have a donation box — which they claim is handed over to the church — for travelers who wish to witness Anna’s “miracle”.
In Chapter Two, Anna proves to be a bright and devoutly religious girl. She is also very slight, suffers from fluid retention, is fairly weak and is easily winded. Lib also thinks she’s losing her hair a little.
Lib continues to scour the room for hiding places for food, and she asks Anna’s doctor, Mr. McBrearty, to restrict Anna’s visitors to prevent them from secretly bringing in food. An exception is made for Dr. Standish, chief of medicine at Dublin hospital, who handles Anna roughly, declares Anna to be in hysterics and orders Lib to force-feed her — though Lib refuses.
Meanwhile, the “spirit grocer” (liquor store) where Lib is staying doubles as a makeshift inn, and soon a journalist from the Irish Times, William Byrne, shows up. He is frustrated over being refused admittance to see Anna and is angry when he learns that Lib is the one who is prohibiting visitors.
As her shifts go by, Lib considers a number of possibilities for how Anna is managing this. Anna believes she is feeing off “mana from heaven”. Dr. McBrearty has a theory that Anna is living off light. Lib considers that someone may be sneaking Anna food, or that Anna is simply good at self-control and has genuinely started fasting now that they’re monitoring her.
In Chapter Three, Lib also learns that Anna had an older brother, Pat, who died suddenly nine months ago. Anna worries he is in hell or will be stuck in purgatory for a long time because he didn’t give a confession before he died.
Meanwhile, William Byrne continues to stay at the spirit grocer’s, and Lib confides in him about her thoughts on what is going on with Anna, though she continues to refuse him access to the girl. Their conversation gets increasingly free and touches on personal subjects, but when William continues to ask to see Anna, Lib suspects he’s using her to get to Anna.
In Chapter Four, Lib misses having someone to talk to and wonders if she misjudged William. She finally decides to arrange a meeting between Anna and William. Afterwards, William (who grew up in Ireland during the famine) tells Lib that Anna is wasting away. He’s seen famine before and her distended limbs and her vinegary breath indicate that her body is eating itself. Anna is also soon entirely bedridden and losing her teeth.
Once Lib realizes William is right, Lib tries to convince Sister Michael and Dr. McBrearty that Anna is simply a girl who is starving herself to death out of some combination of religious fervor and grief over her brother’s death. However, they both refuse to stop the situation. At William’s suggestion, Lib turns to trying to convince Anna to eat, but with no success. William learns that a few months ago, a group of missionaries had been in town for three weeks spreading the fear of god, culminated in a lengthy Blessed Sacrament that took place the day before Lib’s 11th birthday. It was then that Lib took communion, which also turned out to be her last meal.
Lib then figures out that Anna’s mother Rosaleen had been secretly feeding Anna by chewing up food and giving it to Anna by giving her a “kiss” at the morning and at night. Anna had genuinely believed it to be “manna” from heaven, but is now refusing that as well. Lib tells Anna the truth about the “manna” and that if she doesn’t eat it then she’ll die, but Anna simply smiles.
In Chapter Five, Lib learns that a certain prayer that she hears Anna repeat constantly everyday is supposed to help release souls from purgatory (if said 33 times a day while fasting on a Friday). In other words, Anna is fasting and praying in hopes of saving her brother’s soul.
That night, Lib and Sister Michael attends a committee meeting uninvited to tell them the truth about Anna’s health, bringing Anna in to show them her deteriorating state. Still, the committee decides to finish out the experiment just in case.
(Lib also confesses to William the truth about her background. She had an infant that died, and her husband left her after that happened — so she’s not really a widow. Her family distanced themselves from her after the scandal of her husband leaving her.)
Desperate to save Anna, Lib tries to understand why Anna is going to such extremes, and asks Anna if Pat did something bad. Finally, Anna admits that he began molesting her when she was 9 and he was 13. He had told her they were secretly “married”, but she later learned they’d committed a mortal sin. Anna told her mother about it after Pat died, but her mother said she was lying.
With Anna close to death and taking her last rites, Lib decides to concoct a plan to kidnap Anna. She convinces Anna to drink milk by saying that it is “holy milk” that will let Anna die and allow her to be reborn as another little girl. Anna agrees to imbibe the milk. When the family leaves the house for a special mass, Lib hands Anna over to William, who leaves with Anna. Lib then burns down the house. (She tells the committee it was an accident. They dock her pay, but do not charge her with any crime.)
In the Epilogue, Lib is now going by the name of Eliza Raitt. William is going by Wilkie Burns, with Anna pretending to be his daughter as Nan Burns. The book ends with Lib and William getting married by the ship’s chaplain as the three of them sail to Australia.
Chapter One: Nurse
Nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a young Englishwoman of “not yet thirty”, travels from London to Liverpool to begin a well-paid, two-week long position as a private nurse for the O’Donnell family. A driver picks her up and takes her to the run-down back room of the liquor shop (“spirit grocery”) where she’ll be staying.
Shortly after her arrival, the O’Donnell’s physician, Dr. McBrearty, shows up. Upon inquiry, Lib explains that she’s a widow whose husband died less than a year after they were married, which is why she became a nurse when she was 25.
Dr. McBrearty explains that she’ll be looking after a child, Anna O’Donnell. Her job is to “observe” the child whose parents claim that she hasn’t needed to eat since she turned 11, four months ago.
He further explains that he was skeptical at first, but came to see that it was not a hoax. He wrote up an account of it for the Irish Times newspaper, but it resulted primarily in angry messages accusing the O’Donnells of lying and whatnot. As a result, they’ve decided to bring in two nurses — Lib and another woman named Sister Michael — to stand watch over the girl for two weeks. Afterwards, they are both to testify under oath to a committee about what they witnessed. They are instructed not to converse so they can form independent opinions.
At this point in the conversation, Lib understands that she’s been brought here to “cast a veneer of respectability” over the proceedings (which she firmly believes will prove to be a fraud), since she was trained by the famous Miss (Florence) Nightingale at the Scutari Hospital. Meanwhile, Sister Michael was chosen because the family wanted one of the nurses to be a Roman Catholic and Irish, since there is still hostility between the English and the Irish.
Lib finds it suspicious that the O’Donnells refused to conduct this experiment at a hospital, and she suspects it’s because it’s easier for them to secretly give the girl food at home.
The next morning, Lib gets dressed in her nursing garb and is greeted by Mr. Thaddeus, a priest. Sister Michael arrives with him as well, and the three of them make their way towards the house belonging to Malachy O’Donnell which is located just outside the main village.
Lib is surprised to find that the house is a very run-down low-roofed cabin. She reasons that the committee must’ve been the ones paying her fees. She’s soon introduced to Rosaleen O’Donnell, Anna’s mother. Lib and Sister Michael inquire over Anna’s health, and Rosaleen explains how Anna has always been slight and how Anna caught the whooping cough at school last year, but otherwise her health has been good. They stopped sending her to school after her illness.
In the house, a group of guests who have come to see Anna depart, with one leaving a coin in a donation box. The guests seem to believe that Anna’s condition is a miracle from God. Rosaleen claims the donations will be given to the less fortunate, but Lib is skeptical.
After some discussion, Lib and Sister Michael agree upon 8-hour shifts to watch the girl, with Lib starting first. Upon meeting Anna, Lib begins to take measurements and notes about the girl. She notices that there is a bluish tint to the girl’s earlobes and fingernails. She also notes that the girl’s feet, ankles and lower legs appear to be a little swollen. She also observes that the girl appears to be underdeveloped, her body more similar to an 8-year-old than someone 11. The girl’s face also sees to be covered in peach fuzz.
Lib checks the room over thoroughly to ensure that there isn’t food hidden somewhere or disguised as something else, like the water in the vase. Lib also meets Kitty, a woman who helps around the house who is cousins with the O’Donnell family. Meanwhile, Anna recites a prayer, mentioning something that sounds like “Dorothy”. She also shows Lib her “treasures”, which consist of a set of rosary beads, a cross and a candlestick in the shape of the Virgin and Child (a gift to mark her confirmation).
Malachy O’Donnell eventually knocks on the door to introduce himself. He explains that he keeps a few shorthorn cattle and sells their manure for fertilizer. Shortly after, Mr. Reilly, a photographer, arrives to photograph Anna for the paper. When he’s done, he gifts the O’Donnells with a copy of the photo.
When it gets late and close to the time to switch over (at 9 PM), Lib notes that Anna has not used the chamber pot at all. When Anna removes her bun, a lot of hair seems to come out with it. When Sister Michael shows up, the family invites Lib to join them in prayer. She finds the lengthy prayer tiresome. After it’s done, she heads back to the village.
Overall, Lib’s initial impressions about the O’Donnells are rather judgmental, finding them to be too pious, too backwards, too poor and too superstitious.
Chapter Two: Watch
Lib is awoken (as requested) a little past four before it’s time to switch over again (at 5 AM). When Lib arrives at the O’Donnell house, in the kitchen, Lib notices a dish of milk on the floor. Lib suspects that perhaps Anna has been sneaking milk for sustenance.
She also sees Mrs. O’Donnell enter Anna’s room just as Sister Michael exits. Before she can follow her in, she’s stopped by Mr. O’Donnell who tries to talk to her. When Lib finally enters the room, she chides Mrs. O’Donnell for entering the room without one of the nurses present.
As Lib’s shift begins, she entertains Anna with some riddles and finds Anna surprisingly bright. She comments that Anna should really go back to her schooling. A short while later, some visitors come to see Anna, but Lib protests on the grounds that they might be slipping Anna food or hiding food in the room. Rosaleen insists, and Lib makes a note to bring this up to Dr. McBrearty latter.
When the visitors ask Anna how she thinks she’s able to survive without food, Anna replies that she lives “on manna from heaven”. After the visitors leave, Rosaleen and Lib continue their disagreement about whether the visitors should be allowed.
When Lib returns to the spirit grocery, she ask Maggie Ryan, who minds the shop, for directions to Dr. McBrearty’s house and goes to see him. She discusses Anna’s well-being with Dr. McBrearty, who notes that Anna’s swollen limbs are likely a sign of fluid retention. He suggests that digitalis would be the likely remedy, except that Anna refuses to ingest anything. The alternative options are limiting her water intake and bleeding, both of which make Lib uneasy.
Lib also mentions the issue about the visitors, and Dr. McBrearty agrees to prohibit visitors. He also reassures her that the money box was placed there by Mr. Thaddeus, not the O’Donnells, to give to the poor. Finally, when Lib expresses skepticism at whether her fellow nurse would be reliable, Dr. McBrearty reassures her that Sister Michael was a nurse at the Charitable Infirmary in Dublin for 12 years. Before she leaves, Dr. McBrearty also mentions some articles about other cases involving girls who have managed to live without food.
Back at the Ryan’s, she meets William Byrne from the Irish Times. He says that he’s here to see Anna O’Donnell for a story, but he was turned away. Lib assumes it’s because of the instructions she asked Dr. McBrearty to leave about not having visitors. He talks about how he assumes it’s because they’re afraid of being found out as frauds, and even though Lib knows that’s not why, she doesn’t correct him.
When Lib goes for her next shift, she asks Sister Michael of where Anna could’ve gotten the idea of “manna from heaven” from, and Sister Michael suggests the Book of Exodus. That night, as Anna sleeps, Lib looks around Anna’s room and goes through her meager box of treasures. She notices that Anna’s candlestick seems to contain some type of packet inside. Anxious to determine its contents, Lib digs inside it — but accidentally breaks it. The packet turns out to merely contain a lock of hair. When Lib departs at the end of her shift, Anna is still sleeping, and she asks Sister Michael to pass on her apologies.
At her next shift, Lib apologies about the candle and offers Anna a few more riddles. Anna spends most of the time on her stitching. Lib also learns that Anna’s gums tend to bleed, and she suspects one of Anna’s teeth are loose. Anna also asks Lib once again for her “Christian” (first) name, but Lib avoids answering.
That day, Dr. Standish, chief of medicine at Dublin hospital, insists on examinig Anna. He has a note from Dr. McBrearty instructing them to make him an exception to the “no visitors” rule. He instructs Lib to strip Anna naked, and he pokes and prods at her. Finally, he states that it’s clearly a “simple case of hysteria”, though Lib thinks to herself that she’s seen plenty of hysterics and Anna doesn’t seem to be anything like them. He instructs Lib to force-feed Anna, by tube if necessary, but Lib feels it’s needlessly harsh.
When Lib returns to the spirit grocers, William is there again, and he confronts Lib about being one of Anna’s nurses. He also knows that it was Lib’s idea to ban visitors from the O’Donnell’s. She tries to brush him off, but eventually agrees to answering some questions from him. Afterwards, before he leaves, he tries once again to convince her to let him see Anna, but she refuses.
Chapter Three: Fast
At 5 AM on Thursday, Lib begins her next shift. When Anna wakes, she brings up not knowing Lib’s name yet again, and Lib tells her that her name is “Elizabeth” but that no one calls her that. She declines to tell Anna her nickname.
Lib decides to take Anna for a walk outside before she sun has even fully risen. Lib tells her another riddle, and Anna asks for more, but Lib can’t recall any more at the moment. They soon run into Dr. McBrearty, and Lib sends Anna out ahead of them so they can discuss in private. However, they are interrupted when some passersby recognize Anna and get exited. Lib hurries Anna back indoors. After the walk, Anna is severely winded.
Back inside, Lib sees a photo of the O’Donnell family that includes their other child, Pat, died suddenly last November at the age of 15. Looking at the daguerreotype (photo) further, she realizes it was taken with him propped up shortly after his death — with his eyes painted on. Afterwards, Lib asks Anna about it, and she is upset because she believes that Pat is in hell because he wasn’t able to make confessions before he died.
Later, at the Ryan’s, Lib tells William Byrne about the episode involving Pat. They discuss whether the death of her brother could have caused her delusional mental state. She also fills him in on what happened with Dr. Standish. When she mentions Miss Nightingale, William informs her that she’s an invalid now. Lib is upset hearing the news.
Byrne’s theory is that Mr. Thaddeus is behind all of this. Anna is pious and is his parishioner, so Mr. Thaddeus is the one who could have ordered her to eat, even if she didn’t want to. Moreover, he set up the alms box for the “needy”, which means it goes to the Church. Byrne theorizes that Mr. Thaddeus might be hoping to get “Anna’s case acknowledged as a miracle and this dreary hamlet as a site of pilgrimage”.
When Lib starts her next shift, she tries to talk about Anna’s turmoil over her brother’s death, but Sister Michael insists that it isn’t their problem and that they should be conversing.
Meanwhile, Lib thinks about how Anna was born into famine, so was likely accustomed to living with scarcity. She thinks about Anna’s pushy mother Rosaleen and wonders if she was the one who encouraged Anna to eat even less when she saw Anna’s “talent” for self-withholding and self control. When Anna is sleeping, she looks at Anna’s holy card that contain religious messages on them. She notes how a number of quotes could be misconstrued as encouraging her to live without earthly food — quotes about being “able to taste divine things” or “the Lord bestoweth his blessings there, where he findeth the vessels empty” or “thou alone art my meat and drink, my love”.
When Anna awakes, she insists on trying to guess Lib’s nickname again. Lib refuses once again, though she thinks about how her younger sister had been the one to give her the nickname. Now, her parents were dead and her sister had told her that she was dead to her.
Back at the spirit grocers, William is nowhere to be seen. Lib goes exploring around the village. A man points her to a path to walk down, though it leads to nowhere, and she eventually stomps back wet and soaked through.
She ends up twenty minutes late for her next shift, and she feel sheepish since she had been stressing the importance of “high standards”. At the house, Mr. Thaddeus is talking to Anna about Purgatory as Anna worries about how long Pat might be in Purgatory. When they go to pray, Mr. Thaddeus prays that she’ll be “granted the grace to take food”. Anna also recites her “Dorothy” prayer which she often recites, and it turns out that she’s saying “adore thee” and not “Dorothy”.
When the rain stops, Lib takes Anna outside for a walk. When she returns, John Flynn, a member of the committee overseeing Anna’s situation, is there for a visit. He tells Anna what a miracle she is, bringing hope to everyone, and he asks her to say a prayer for him.
That night, Lib finally tells Anna that her nickname is “Lib” and tells her about being a widow. Lib also sees that John has left behind a copy of the Irish Times on his way out. She sees there’s an article about Anna, written before Lib had told William anything about Anna’s case. Lib chafes at its flippant tone.
As Lib finishes up her shift, she thinks about how it’s now been five days since they started observing Anna. If Anna had been sneaking food somehow before, it’s surely stopped now, so it’s possible Anna has been genuinely been starving for five days, and Lib feels concerned.
Heading back to the village, Lib stops off at the grave of Pat O’Donnell — it’s dated December 3, 1843 to November 21, 1858. Back in the village, she runs into William Byrne, and they make friendly conversation. When she brings up the topic of the famine, Byrne gets worked up, talking about the many missteps of the landlords and English government that resulted in the mass famine.
They also talk about how Lib is not religious and her experiences as a nurse working in the Crimea. She describes the most difficult part of it as being the excessive paperwork that prevented her from giving the wounded soldiers the care they needed. Sometimes, by the time the required forms were filled out and signed off on for necessary food or medicine, the soldier would already have died.
Despite their warm conversation, when William brings up wanting permission to see Anna again, Lib bristles and walks away.
Chapter Four: Vigil
When Lib returns to the O’Donnell household, she talks to Kitty, asking her what Anna’s last meal was. Kitty tells her it was “the Host”, her first Holy Communion.
That night, Anna complains that she’s unable to feel her feet. Lib sees that they are cold to the touch and wonders why her circulation is so poor. She has Anna get out of bed and walk around. Later, Lib thinks about now Anna sees to have so many symptoms, but they don’t seem to amount to anything that Lib is familiar with.
On Sunday, as Anna and Lib walk around, Lib asks Anna about a hawthorn tree she had seen that had rags tied all over it. Anna explains that the rags are curatives. You dip it in water, rub it on a sore or ache, and then you tie it on the tree. Anna says that the “badness stays on the rag” and “once it rots away, what was ailing you will be gone too.” Lib thinks about this and considers this to be a “cunning legend” since the rag will likely take so long to disintegrate that the ailment would have naturally cured itself.
Later, Lib finds herself wanting to talk to William, to have someone to talk to who seems to be able to make a clear analysis of the situation. She wonders if she misjudged him by assuming he was simply using her to get to Anna. Or, she considers the possibility that he both wants to the story but has good intentions as well. Lib decides to leaves William a note, indicating how he can meet up with her and Anna.
The next day, a religious holiday arrives, the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, which marks the day she was lifted up to heaven. Anna is in high spirits, though Lib worries since Anna’s pulse seem fast, as is her breathing.
When Lib goes out walking with Anna, they run into William, as instructed on her note. Lib leads them away from the village, not wanting the O’Donnell’s that she broke her own rule regarding visitors. As Anna and William chat, Anna asks him about him personal questions and about his travels.
Afterwards, William comments to Lib that Anna is “a delightful dying child” who is clearly wasting away. William says he’s studied famine before. He says her breath is turning vinegary because her body is eating itself. As they chat, Anna faints. William helps to carry her home. Later, Lib receives a note from William giving a more detailed version of the assessment of Anna he’d previously conveyed to Lib. Lib reads it and throws up, knowing she should have caught this herself.
When Lib sees Anna next, Sister Michael is reciting a story to Anna. She asks Anna how she’s feeling, and Anna describes herself as “floating”. Lib wonders if she means that she is dizzy. Anna also says she hears “bells, far off” and Lib interprets this as a ringing in her ears. Lib also notices that Anna’s hands and feet are colder than before. Her heart rate continues to rise and her movements are slower.
Lib finally asks Anna why she recites (what Lib refers to as) her “Dorothy” prayer all the time. Anna responds that Anna recites it 33 times a day (representing the age of Christ when he died and was resurrected) in order to help Pat get out of hell/purgatory.
When Rosaleen goes to say goodnight to Anna, Anna is cold towards her mother, as she has been lately. Lib wonders if Anna somehow resents her mother for being turned into a “fairground attraction”, maybe even subconsciously.
When Anna is asleep, Sister Michael comes to talk to Lib. She explains that the story she told Anna earlier was about an old woman confessing her sins and how that relieved her of her burden. Lib realizes then that Sister Michael may not necessarily believe this is some miracle. Lib tells her that they need to learn the truth since Anna’s life may depend on it, but Sister Michael turns and leaves. Lib calculates that there are six days left, and she wonders if Anna will be able to subsist on water for that long.
When Sister Michael returns, Lib asks her to come speak to Dr. McBrearty with her to discuss Anna’s condition. Lib says they should tell him her refusal to eat is not a miracle, but rather brought on by grief after her brother’s death. Sister Michael disagrees, saying that they are under orders to merely observe. However, Lib points out that following orders “to the letter” is what “torturers do”. She also angrily asks Sister Michael whether she’s under orders from Mr. Thaddeus to report this as a miracle regardless of what she sees.
Afterwards, Lib goes looking for Dr. McBrearty by herself. He starts talking about what a miracle it is that Anna has transformed to be able to live without food, and he imagines a grandiose world where everyone is free from the need to eat.
When Lib interrupts to provide her observation that Anna is failing quickly and needs to eat, he brushes off her conclusions. He says that it must be her maternal instinct kicking in because her own infant died. He describes Lib as having “motherly anxiety” that is leading to her “irrational panic”. Afterwards, Lib thinks that she botched the situation by not bringing Dr. McBrearty around slowly and letting it be his idea.
At her next shift, Lib sees that one of Anna’s permanent teeth has fallen out. She pockets the tooth. Anna also has darkened lips and eyes. Her face and neck are increasingly fuzzy. Her skin is pale and bumpy. Anna also reports she has weakening sight.
Dr. McBrearty goes to see Anna to bring her a wheelchair. He notes her physical changes but decides that it’s all signs that her body is being altered on a systemic level to no longer need food. When Lib points out that the girl is bedridden, Dr. McBrearty says it’s good for her to rest. Finally, Lib demands that he call of the watch, but Dr. McBrearty points out that to do so would “tantamount to a declaration that my old friends the O’Donnells are vile cheats”.
That night, Lib goes to see William Byrne. She tells him that she sees now he’s right about Anna. However, she says that neither Sister Michael or Dr. McBrearty are willing to do anything to stop it. Lib admits that she’s tried to stay neutral about the topic of eating with Anna, but William tells her now it the time for her to impress upon Anna the urgency of her needing to eat.
Back at the O’Donnell cabin, Lib comes armed with scripture and riddles to try to convince Anna to eat. She shows Anna a mirror so she can sees what she looks like now. When Anna changes, she sees how she is covered in bedsores. When she breathes, Lib can hear the sound of crackling, which is a sign of fluid in the lungs, meaning there is little time left.
She then shows Anna various pieces of scripture that talk about the importance of food and nourishment. However, Anna argues back. When Lib presses on Anna’s protruding distended stomach, she can see the pain on Anna’s face, and she points out to Anna that she’s losing hair.
Before she can finish talking, Rosaleen pulls her aside to show her a newly published article by William Byrne where he talks about meeting Anna. He describes her as being “in grave danger” and being in her “deathbed”. It turns into an argument, and Lib is surprised when Rosaleen starts crying. Lib realizes how terrifying it must’ve been for the parents when Anna had refused to eat, so soon after their son had died. Instead, they hoped it was “part of God’s plan”.
Lib offers to take Anna outside in her wheelchair, and they run into William Byrne again. He suggests force-feeding Anna, though Lib is unsure she could. William also tells her he thinks his theory that Mr. Thaddeus was behind this is wrong — it turns out Mr. Thaddeus was the one who suggested that they watch the girl.
William also says that he learned that missionary priests were here last spring, hammering away with their “hellfire and brimstone” for three weeks. It ended with a forty-hour (“Quarantore”) Blessed Sacrament on the day before Anna’s 11th birthday, which is when she took communion — her last meal.
Lib also mentions the “green road” to nowhere that she walked down. William bitterly explains that it was built during the famine when there was a great snow in Ireland. Because “charity was considered corrupting”, anyone starving had to participate in pointless Public Works projects like that to get food — assuming they didn’t die in the process.
Afterwards, Lib thinks more about force-feeding Anna, but she thinks that it wouldn’t work. She thinks it would “crack” Anna’s spirit and cause her to further withdraw from the world.
Lib then thinks about how she had talked about being fed manna in past tense. She also remembers how Rosaleen had greeted Anna each morning and night with a kiss. She asks Anna who “brought” her the manna, and Anna responds that her mother did. With that, Lib understands that Rosaleen had been secretly feeding Anna chewed up food (which Anna believed to be manna) until Anna had started refusing her recently. Lib asks Anna why she is refusing the “manna” now, and Anna responds that she no longer needs it.
Lib finally tells Anna the blunt truth. She tells her that “manna” was chewed up food from the kitchen and that it was keeping Anna alive. She tells her that if she doesn’t eat, she’ll die. Anna simply nods and smiles.
Chapter Five: Shift
Back at the spirit grocer’s, Lib tells William what she’s figured out. William tells her that the committee is meeting tonight and that Lib should go confront them with what she knows.
When it’s time to switch over, Lib tells Sister Michael the truth and asks her to come with her to the committee meeting tonight. However, Sister Michael refuses, saying that their orders are to observe and make their report on Sunday.
Desperate to convince Anna to eat, Lib reminds Anna that self-murder is a sin and that those who commit suicide go to hell. However, Anna turns away from her. Lib then tells Kitty the truth, but Kitty refuses to hear it and calls Lib a liar.
Still not entirely why Anna is doing this, Lib gets the idea to look in the missal (Catholic prayer book) for Anna’s “Dorothy” prayer. The missal explains that the “I adore thee…etc” prayer “if said thirty-three times fasting on a Friday three souls will be released from purgatory, but if on Good Friday the harvest will be thirty-three souls.” In other words, Anna believes that by fasting she can help ensure that more souls (like her brothers) can be released from purgatory.
Lib confronts Anna with this — asking whether she is fasting to save her brother from purgatory — and Anna confirms her suspicions. Lib tells Anna that it’s about skipping one meal on fridays, not ceasing to eat altogether. However, Anna says she wants to make amends and that she wants to be reunited with her brother.
Lib keeps pressing on, insisting that God wants people to live, and that it’s his plan for Anna to live. When Anna is asleep later and Malachy returns home, Lib tells him about how Anna is starving herself in hopes of saving her brother from purgatory. Lib instructs Malachy to tell Anna to eat, but Malachy says that Anna won’t listen to him, only to God.
That night, Lib shows up to the meeting unannounced. She starts telling them about the deteriorated state of Anna’s health and about how Anna thinks that fasting will save her brother from purgatory. Before she can say more, Sister Michael shows up, wheeling Anna in with her. Sister Michael then describes what they are doing as a “slow execution” and asks them to call off the watch.
The committee members then dismiss the O’Donnell family members. However, they seem to want to stick to their current course of actions for the sake of science, reasoning that there’s only a few days left. Lib impresses upon them that Anna will likely be dead by then, though they dismiss her concerns.
Late that night, William knocks on her door, saying he heard about what happened at the meeting from Maggie Ryan. Lib recounts her version of the events to him. William tells her that she’s the only one who can save Anna now.
As they talk, Lib admits to William that she’s not really a widow. Her husband simply left her. Lib neglects to mention the part about their baby dying. While her family had helped her move to London, they distanced themselves from her afterwards, not wanting to be involved in scandal. William expresses surprise that any man would leave her, and then he kisses her.
The next morning, Lib heads to the O’Donnell’s, unsure if they’ll even let her in, but they do. By now, Anna’s eyes are glassy and her skin is wrinkled. Her heartbeat is jumpy. Lib tries once again to ask Anna to eat, to no avail. Anna simply wonders how long dying will take. Mr. Thaddeus shows up, and he recites a hymn and leaves. He also informs them about a mass that’s taking place because of Anna’s failing health.
Lib puzzles over why Anna would feel like she had to go to such extremes to save Pat’s soul. Finally, she asks Anna whether Pat had done something bad. Anna says it was “double love” in that she was both his sister and his bride. She says that Pat “married me in the night” when she was 9 and him 13. She said it was a secret and that it had continued on from there.
Anna thinks they did something wrong and that God killed him for it, and she feels bad that Pat is taking all the blame for something they both did. She says that she realized it was wrong because the missionaries had talked about how brothers and sisters being together was a mortal sin. Lib tries to convince Anna that it wasn’t her fault. As Anna cries, Lib prays to God to help Anna.
When Anna is asleep, Lib goes to talk to Rosaleen. She tells her what Anna confessed about being molested by Pat starting from when she was 9. However, Rosaleen says that Anna already told her that after Pat died and that her response was to tell her not to slander her dead brother.
Early the next morning, Lib talks to William about the situation, but she purposely doesn’t tell William about the molestation out of respect to Anna. William says he tried asking the police to intervene, but they declined to “invade a domestic sanctum” without hard evidence of a crime.
Lib tells William that she once watched her own child die and she can’t do it again. She doesn’t think Anna should stay with her family if they’re not willing to lift a finger to save her. Furthermore, she admits to William that she plans to kidnap Anna and take her away.
When Lib arrives for her next shift, Mr. Thaddeus is giving Anna her last rites. As he leaves, Anna stops him and asks him if he knows about the molestation, and he answers in the affirmative. He adds that he’s been telling Anna for months that her sins are forgiven, but to only speak “good of the dead”. In other words, he believed Anna, but also believed that is was “her sin”.
Tonight is also the special mass for Anna, and Lib suggests that she stay late so that Sister Michael can attend the mass. As the day drags by, Lib begs Malachy to beg Anna to eat, but he says he promised — a vow on a bible — her months ago back when she was healthy that he wouldn’t.
When the family leaves for the mass, Lib gets some milk from the kitchen and tells Anna she has holy milk that will change her into a new person. By drinking it, Anna O’Donnell will die and she will be reborn as an 8-year-old girl named Nan.
Anna takes the milk and some oat cake. Lib declares that Anna is now “Nan”. Then, William meets them outside with his horse, Polly. With Anna/Nan safely with William, Lib goes back inside and sets the cabin on fire and runs off.
The next morning, Lib’s hands are bandaged, as she waits to learn whether or not the cabin burned enough that people would believe Anna perished in the flames. Lib does not know if they’ll accuse her of arson and put her behind bars.
The plan is to meet William in the town of Athlone if possible. Otherwise, he’ll board a ship with Anna/Na, as father and daughter.
As Sister Michael tends to her wounds, she reminds Lib to “be meek” when she is questioned about the fire, which will give her the best chance of being let go. Sister Michael also adds that she had a vision last night of “an angel riding away with the child”, and Lib realizes that Sister Michael knows what really happened.
When questioned in front of the committee, Lib makes up a story. She says that Anna perished last night. In her desperation to get help, Lib says she must’ve knocked over a lamp. There was lamp oil next to it, and she was afraid it would explode, so she ran for her life.
After hearing her story, the committee chides her for her carelessness since it leaves them unable to autopsy Anna’s remains. They decide to dock her pay for her services because of the fire, but no charges are made. Soon after, William publishes a blistering article decrying the family and the doctor who allowed Anna to die of starvation.
Later, Lib is now going by the name of Eliza Raitt. William is now going under the name of Wilkie Burns, with Anna as Nan Burns as his daughter. Lib/Eliza and William/Wilkie are getting married by the chaplain of the ship, and they’re headed to Australia. Their story is that they are each a widow/widower and that they met on the ship and fell in love.