Counting by 7s - Chapters 17 - 20 Summary & Analysis

Holly Goldberg Sloan
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Summary

In Chapter 17, the police ask Willow about her next of kin. The only living relative is her father’s mother. She has dementia. Many of her parents’ other relatives have died of health issues. Willow thinks that considering kinfolk health histories is the only time she’s been comforted that she was adopted. She cannot breathe and has trouble concentrating.

She sits on the front steps and cries. She believes she will never be herself again. Mai sits next to her making a cooing noise. Mai is crying as well. As she listens to the police making phone calls, trying to find out what they should do, Willow realizes she can’t even count by sevens. Willow finally has to go to the bathroom bad enough that she gives Mai her key to open the house. She expects her parents to be there but knows they won’t be. She describes her house as a museum of a family that is finished.

In Chapter 18, Mai helps Willow inside to the bathroom then goes to Willow’s room with a brown paper bag. She picks up a pair of red pajamas and puts them in the bag. As she is leaving, she notices a book titled “Understanding Vietnamese Customs and Traditions.” It is at this point that she realizes she wants Willow to come with her. In order for this to happen, Mai lies to the police, telling them that the their families had been friends for years.

Dell drives slowly as he follows the police car to Mai’s mother’s nail salon. They don’t realize it, but they drive right through the intersection where Willow’s parents were killed. At the salon, Dell and Willow stay in the car while Mai and Quang-ha race each other into the building. Dell seems most concerned that he will get into trouble because he has taken the three students off school grounds. He tries to say something comforting to Willow but his bumbling attempts only make her cry harder. Dell has to bite the inside of his mouth to make himself stop talking.

In Chapter 19, inside her shop, Pattie Nguyen is doing inventory. Patti believes in the signs of fortune. She is holding a bottle of blue nail polish when Dell’s car and the police car pull into her lot. Immediately she decides the blue polish is bad luck and decides to stop carrying it. Quang-ha tries to make himself heard above Mai, letting him mother know that his sister lied. Mai is talking about Willow and the accident that killed her parents. As Patti tries to sort out what the kids are saying, the police officers come into the shop.

Instead of letting her mother be questioned by the police, Mai takes her to Dell’s car and lets her see Willow. In Willow, Patti sees a younger version of herself, a child who had grown up without parents. She reaches out for the girl. Patti takes legal responsibility of Willow for the next 24 hours. Dell hangs around the shop, hoping to be invited home with the family but Patti tells him they will talk the next day as she pushes him out of the shop. As he gets into his car, the reality of what has happened hits him and he begins to cry.

In Chapter 20, being hugged by Patti is the first time Willow feels she is able to breathe since she learned of her parents’ accident. She is taken home with the Nguyens and learns their home is a garage. There is only one window and no bathroom. In order to use the bathroom, they have to walk across the alley to the salon. There is an airconditioner, but it is still hot. They sleep on a queen sized mattress and cot pushed together. A long table with two hot plates and a microwave make up their cooking area. Willow notices an unsafe plug with six electric cords coming from it. She thinks it might be good if the garage were to catch fire, especially if she were alone. That way she would be released from the pain of her grief.

Patti makes her soup and salty pork strips but Willow can’t swallow the food. After Quang-ha goes to the salon as Mai asked him, she and Patti help Willow into her pajamas. Patti lights incense, then she and Mai cry with Willow. Willow decides she will make herself remember nothing of that night.

Analysis

The meat and potatoes of Willow’s story seems to begin in these chapters. Notice the tense has changed back to present tense as the events have caught up with the beginning of the novel. Up until Chapter 17 much of the text dealt with description of Willow’s background and her own personality, along with the background and personalities of Dell and Mai. Now that this foundation has been laid, the real story starts.

It is in these chapters that the theme of grief is introduced. Willow goes through all of the accepted stages of grief. In these chapters, she is in shock. She has trouble breathing and feels as if her world is coming to an end. She can’t even count by sevens, an activity that brought her comfort in the past. Later, as she begins to come to grips with what has happened, Willow forces herself to forget the night of her parents’ death where Pattie lights incense and cries with her. She notices an overloaded plug in the Nguyen’s garage and wishes the garage would catch fire with her there alone. She believes the release from the pain of her grief would be a relief.

Notice that after Willow has learned the news of her parents’ deaths, it is only Pattie who is able to bring some comfort to Willow. Mai sits by Willow and cries with her, but it is only when Willow is wrapped in Patti’s arms that she feels like she is capable of breathing again. Although Dell tries to comfort Willow, his bumbling attempts only make her feel worse. The more he tries to say something comforting, the worse his attempts become. Thankfully, Dell realizes he’s only making matters worse for Willow because he finally winds up biting the inside of his mouth to keep himself from talking any more.

The theme of signs and symbols works itself into this section of the novel as Patti works with her nail polish. She’s conducting an inventory and looking at the colors she has in stock when Dell’s car, then the police car pulls up at her shop. She has always thought that red was a lucky color and has long wished it were the only color she carried. However, she’s holding a bottle of blue polish in her hand when the cars pull up. Even though she doesn’t yet know what news the people in the cars bring, she automatically decides that it is because she was holding the blue polish, and not the lucky, red polish that she will now have to deal with some trouble. Pattie’s superstitions are so strong that she decides to quit carrying the blue polish because she has decided it is unlucky even before she fully knows what is happening.

Discussion Question 1

Notice the way the author works Pattie and her children’s living conditions into the story. Why do you think this is significant?

Discussion Question 2

How does Willow express her grief in these chapters? Use examples from the text.

Discussion Question 3

Is Pattie a superstitious person? Why or why not?

Vocabulary

contradict, consolation, avalanche, dysphagia, oropharyngeal

This section contains 1,286 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)
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