Friday, September 19, 2014

Counting by 7s

Author:  Holly Goldberg Sloan

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
              Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  Middle School Girls

Counting by 7s is a paradoxical book.  Sometimes written in first person, sometimes third, it feels both quirky and edgy while it explores both despair and hopefulness.

I suppose that's how adolescence often feels, and this book would especially appeal to youngsters who don't fit into typical teen scenes and/or have been identified (for better or for worse) as "gifted."

Willow Chance is one such girl.  She thinks in patterns of sevens, researches science and medicine, studies words and pi, analyzes behaviors and gardens.  Wearing her gardening clothes to middle school, and toting wheeled luggage instead of a backpack, Willow doesn't stand much chance of peer acceptance.  But she really doesn't mind, if she can just find one person that interests her.

Her chances seem even more slim when she is sent to the school district's apathetic and mostly inept counselor after scoring 100% on the state tests.  As the counselor begins to contemplate how he can exploit her genius, Willow meets another of the counselor's detainees, Quang-ha.   Ethnically and academically unquantifiable, Quang-ha is always accompanied by his sister Mai.  Willow is especially intrigued by Mai's poise and self confidence as she helps her brother navigate the pitfalls of high school.  Willow befriends the Nguyen siblings in hopes of finding a kindred spirit in Mai.  If she becomes fluent in Vietnamese along the way, well, that's just the sort of bonus that's right up Willow's alley.

When tragedy strikes Willow's life, the Nguyen family, the counselor, and an hispanic taxi driver find themselves supporting each other through multiple challenges.  As Willow navigates through grief and despair, she's also able to encourage and teach others.  By the end of the book, and in surprising ways, each character has been transformed by their relationships with the others.

Author Holly Goldberg Sloan is exploring the common theme "no man is an island," and she does this with warmth, humor, and a quirky kid.  At the same time, the reader will sense an almost random force propelling the characters, as if chance alone rules their universe.  There seems to be no higher source of hope or inspiration in the world of these characters.  The message is essentially:  "when bad things happen, the most we can do is be there for each other and try to help each other through."

"Reality is a blender where hopes and dreams are mixed with fear and despair."

While the connectedness of the characters is encouraging and accounts for much of the humor and unpredictability of the book, it also seems Sloan is trying to redefine societal roles.  I suppose any group of random people stuck in a random situation may find themselves growing into a family, but it rarely works out in real life as well as it does for the people in this novel.  Maybe Sloan's message is that it ought to, but without a spiritual source or a common moral code from which to draw, I have my doubts.

Sloan conveys these themes with a writing style that makes you feel as if you're inside Willow's head as she's talking.  Alternating chapters between first and third persons does not create a choppy feel to the book, but just the opposite.  It's crystal clear when Willow is thinking out loud and when the narrator is fleshing out characters and details.  Sloan also excels at creating and developing characters.  I've rarely read a book with such diverse players, and waiting for the plot threads to unite and transform them is a satisfying pleasure.

Families should be aware of a fairly blunt look at infertility vs. conception early in the book:

"For 7 years my mom tried to get pregnant.  That seems like a long time of working at something, since the medical definition of infertility is twelve months of well-timed physical union without any results.  And while i have a passion for all things medical, the idea of them doing that, especially with any kind of regularity and enthusiasm, makes me feel nauseated...."

The vocabulary is challenging and appropriate.  Twice in the book characters lie to advance the plot or protect another character.  Quang-ha and Mai's mom, Pattie, is single-parent after being abandoned by their dad.  By the end of the book, a character who has helped the family becomes her boyfriend, but the relationship always appears platonic.

Sloan's message is that our skills, gifts, experiences, responses, even emotions have far-reaching consequences throughout humanity.  While I agree this is true, I don't believe it happens in some sort of metaphysical, New Age way, but rather at the sovereign hand of the God of the universe.  Likewise, ultimate hope and meaning can't be found in earthly hobbies and human relationships alone, but in the message of redemption and eternal life with the One who redeems.

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