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Of all the Tillerman siblings, nine-year-old Maybeth is probably the most helpless. She's not resourceful like Dicey, or smart like James, or a fighter like Sammy. She struggles in school because she's so shy (and maybe a bit of a slow learner), so she's actually been held back a grade. At school in Bridgeport, the nuns are determined to label her as "retarded."
Folks also seem to be pretty worried that Maybeth will end up like her mother. Maybe, as Father Joseph observes, there is some kind of "mental weakness" (1.11.53) in the Tillerman family and Maybeth has got it. She's pretty and soft-spoken so she could easily become a victim (like with Mr. Rudyard) or have her own mental break (like Momma). According to her sibling:
"James, do you think Maybeth's like Momma?"
"Do you think Maybeth could go crazy like that?"
"Yes. If— if she had to. You know?" (1.12.156-160)
But even though the outside world wants to label Maybeth as defective, Dicey and her siblings see her for who she really is. When she's with them and people she trusts, she opens up. So while she is shy and will pretty much go along with anything, she has a gentle heart and sweet personality, and her siblings have ready access to these parts of her. She's the one, for instance, who convinces Sammy to keep walking along with them when he's being stubborn on the way to Bridgeport.
Maybeth also has a way of knowing what people's true intentions are. Check it out:
"You can't tell," Dicey said. "You can't tell who to trust."
"Yes I can," Maybeth said, but not to quarrel. She said it simply, as if it was her name. (1.4.15-16)
While Dicey may have a hard time figuring people out, Maybeth tends to hit them on the head pretty quickly. This is actually pretty darn mature and perceptive of her, and probably the result of being an observer rather than a thinker or a doer, like her siblings.
Maybeth is also very musically gifted. She's the most into singing of all her siblings and she has the loveliest voice, too. Even though her teachers think she can't read or add, Maybeth can remember songs and starts to learn how to play the piano at her grandmother's house. Her musical aptitude makes it clear she's no dummy.
In the end, Maybeth shows real strength when she agrees to take the test to enter third grade by herself:
Her grandmother spoke to Maybeth. "Maybeth? You've got two hard times coming. This, now, is the first. Tomorrow morning is the next. Nothing will make them easier. That's the way it is. Do you understand that?"
Maybeth nodded, but her hand stayed on Dicey's arm.
"Will you try?" their grandmother asked. "It'll take some courage, but I think you've got that. Do you have it?"
"I don't know," Maybeth said. "I'll try." She released Dicey's arm. "It'll be okay, Dicey." (2.12.86-89)
Dicey can't help her anymore—there are some things that Maybeth will just have to face on her own. But Maybeth understands this, and is willing to be brave and try. Because of this, for all of the ways in which she's quiet and hangs back, we think this girl is going to be okay in the end.