Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan | audio book by Robin Miles
first read : 7:15/7:15
Warnings for: cancer, car accident, parental death, traumatic loss, references to child abuse, authorial fatshaming
Very recently, two of the closest people in the world to me lost their stepfather, and it’s really horrible. He was part of my family, too, but he wasn’t my dad; so while I personally am off my normal rhythm, my version of sadness seems to be showing up in the way where all the emotions I expect aren’t always in me when I look for them. So this sad book, which is about very real people, some of whom die and the others of whom have to keep living, and are good at it, and are just good, was a cathartic choice of reading instead of an emotionally catastrophic choice of reading. I wouldn’t hand it to my two close people for a very long time.
I want to be clear about that: maybe you are the kind of person who won’t be personally injured by reading about this kind of sudden, violent, world-rending loss, or about the discovery of being terribly, frighteningly ill, or about being a child who is unable to fit herself into the comfortable shapes other people want out of her, who is suddenly alone. But if you’re vulnerable to those things, it will find you where your heart hurts most.
Willow is a twelve-year-old, adopted, self-identified P.O.C. who is absolutely brilliant. There are untold numbers of genius children in literature, but Willow’s is specifically characterized even if it’s all-encompassing. She loves plants, she loves primes, she is unceasingly logical, she is shamelessly fascinated in human illness (especially skin conditions). (Willow is exquisitely voiced in a thoughtful, sometimes awkward staccato by Robin Miles, who also keeps a firm grip on characters’ Spanish and Vietnamese accents, never descending into racist parody.)
Her parents are killed in a car crash on the way home from a very upsetting doctor’s visit. Willow doesn’t have friends and her family is not close to their relatives or to many other people. They are good but solitary. So when her parents die, it’s kindness, chance (like her last name), and the will to love that will pick her up out of her grief, and give her a new, good home.
The found family Willow accumulates include a Vietnamese woman and her two children (one of whom sees the same counselor as Willow at school), a Hispanic taxi driver named Heiro Hernandez, and the school counselor, who doesn’t care about much of anything–his job, himself, other people–until Willow and her new caretakers force themselves into his everyday life.
Some of the things that happen in the story, that are demonstrative of what love and attention and a brilliant little girl can do, aren’t 100% likely. But I really have to think it’s all right that this is the case, because the human heart of the story is unquestionably real, and the idea that things can be okay is good, and the choice to make them more than okay is a dream that maybe sometimes people need to clutch at, to find okay of any kind.
The only real objection I have with the book–well, there are two. One is a stolen cat. The other is that Dell Duke, the lackluster counselor, is fat, and his weight is observed by Willow and also by the author’s third-person segments, as a negative and dangerous quality associated with sloth and dirtiness. THIS IS NOT COOL. DO NOT DO THIS. I think when it comes to Willow, the presence of this attitude is acceptable, because lots of twelve-year-old girls are taught to think in this way. But if that’s the only attitude you wish to demonstrate in the whole book, I’m less happy about it. I got back at the book for this, though–Mai Nguyen is supposed to be skinny, but she was like a panel of solid, chubby, immovable teen oak in my mental picture, and she will stay that way in my mind forever.
But with this one failing in mind–I loved this book, and it gave me some of what I needed. I think I cried for about 65% of its total run time–which, by the way, not counting opening and closing credits, is 7 hours and 14 minutes. Just what Willow would like.