Counting by 7s Themes & Motifs

Holly Goldberg Sloan
This Study Guide consists of approximately 71 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Counting by 7s.
This section contains 2,681 words
(approx. 7 pages at 400 words per page)

Labels, Categories

The difficulty with making people fit a category or label is a major theme in this novel. Willow struggles with the pressure put on her when she is labeled. Similarly, Dell Duke tries to make sense of his world by putting the students he counsels into categories. He quickly learns that people often don’t meld completely into any one grouping.

Early in her life, Willow is saddled with labels. The kids in her class refer to her as a weirdo. When she’s evaluated by an educational consultant, she is labeled as highly gifted, a description that Willow doesn’t even completely understand. Dell Duke later struggles to create a category in which the place the exceptional child. He eventually comes up with the label of genius. Later, when Willow sees his categorization system, she does not agree with his act of classifying her as a genius. She believes each person is a mix of genetic material that can’t be simplified into large categories.

Dell first realizes there is a problem with his system of classification, in which he has included four major categories, when he meets Willow. He adds a new category for her. Then he meets Pattie and has to add the category of dictator for her. After he becomes more acquainted with Quang-ha, Dell realizes he’s actually placed the boy in the wrong category. Dell later adds the “mutant” category for himself. Instead of seeing the folly in trying to force people into categories, as Willow understands quickly, Dell continues to try to force the people he meets into overly simplified categories.

Signs, Symbols

Signs, whether they indicate good luck, bad luck or foreshadow things to come are very important to the characters in this novel. Jairo and Pattie are the ones who are probably the most affected by signs. Willow, however, also interprets the way her life might go based on what she believes are signs.

The number 7 and the color red are two signs or symbols that are important to Willow. She says that it was the seventh day of the seventh month that her parents adopted her. She takes comfort in counting by 7s. Being a garden enthusiast, Willow also recognizes the importance of the color red. It is an important color in nature. She has a gardening hat that she wears when in the garden or when she wants to attract hummingbirds.

Later, when Willow is living with Pattie, she begins trying to determine how her life might go based on what she sees as signs. Perhaps the most important sign to Willow is the destruction of the plants that she had been rooting for her garden. She and Dell had been sifting through residents’ yard trash for clippings that Willow could use to start a garden in their apartment courtyard once the sunflowers they’d planted there were gone. Willow locates her rooting operation on the roof of the apartment complex, believing no one will bother it. Unfortunately, a maintenance man is called to repair part of the roof and he throws away all of the rooting plants. They have been taken out with the garbage by the time Willow gets home and realizes what has happened. She believes the loss of these plants is a sign that she will not live in the Gardens of Glenwood much longer.

One of the more superstitious of the characters in the novel is Jairo. It is said that he is one who watches for signs and believes in them. Beginning with Willow’s first ride in his cab, Jairo decides that Willow is a symbol of good luck. Without even realizing what affect her words will have on him, Willow encourages Jairo to go back to school. In their next encounter, she alerts him to a possibly health threatening mole on his neck. At one point in the novel Willow is described as a “blinking red light” for Jairo. He credits her influence when he wins the $20,000 prize as the one-millionth customer at the college bookstore.

Also highly superstitious is Pattie. Consider the incident with the nail polish on the night that she first meets Willow. Pattie has been taking inventory of her nail polish and is wishing that she could carry just shades of red, a color she believes is lucky. A new favorite, however, is blue. When the police car pulls up into Pattie’s parking lot, she quickly decides this color is unlucky and throws it in the trash before she even fully knows what is happening. She thinks perhaps if she’d been holding the red polish, the police car would never have come. Later, when Pattie is to go before the judge for custody of Willow, Pattie dresses in clothes that she believes symbolizes the things she wants the judge to understand. The doves on her blouse are symbols of love while the black skirt is a symbol of respect. Her shoes are red, which has already been noted is believed by Pattie to be a lucky color.

After she gets to know Willow better, Pattie lets Willow talk to her about hygiene problems in her nail salon. What Willow has to say makes Pattie angry. That night, however, Pattie has a dream where all of her clients fall over dead in her manicure chairs. Pattie believes this dream is a sign that she needs to pay attention to Willow’s suggestions.

Finally, the sunflower becomes a symbol for Willow. Willow not only uses the idea that these flowers won’t last as a comparison point for her own temporary life with Pattie and the other but Mai also compares the sunflowers to Willow when she begins to realize that the young girl needs a permanent place to put down roots. When Mai and Quang-ha run from school on the day that their mother is to be granted custody of Willow, Mai looks back to see a decal of a sunflower bathed in sunlight on the school window. She believes it is a sign of good luck.

Favor Bank

The idea that one sets up a favor bank in which they do kind things for others and the others return these favors is a major theme in this novel. The beauty of Willow’s “favor bank” is that she doesn’t help people with the idea that she will get anything in return. She does what she feels needs to be done. These things help others, but Willow doesn’t take the credit. For instance, Jairo calls Willow his angel but Willow says she’s nobody’s angel.

Willow first hears the term “favor bank” from the lighting engineer who comes to install the lights in her new garden. She takes a liking to the term and soon decides that when the man asks her to look at some design sketches for a project on which he’s working that she can consider this as part of her favor bank. In reality, Willow has been helping people out all along without even realizing the effect she’s been having on them.

Jairo is perhaps the first person whom Willow helped in the course of the novel. He is also the character who most pointedly credits his good fortune to Willow. After her first taxi ride with him, Willow makes a comment to Jairo that he shouldn’t let anyone say you can’t do it. While Willow was talking about herself, the comment kickstarts Jairo’s memory that he had once intended to go back to school and be something other than a taxi driver. Later, when he’s buying books for the classes he believes Willow has challenged him to take, Jairo happens to be the bookstore’s one-millionth customer, a circumstance that nets him $20,000. He credits this windfall to Willow.

After she opens up to Willow’s ideas, Pattie and her business are also helped by Willow. Because Willow has taken the habit of sitting so still when she spends the days in Pattie’s salon, Pattie is afraid the girl will scare the customers. For this reason, she gives Willow the project of looking over her lease agreement. She’s surprised when Willow actually reads it and finds inconsistencies. Next, Pattie challenges Willow by asking her to rearrange the salon so another manicure chair can be added. Willow does as Pattie asked and the salon actually seems less crowded after she finishes. Willow approaches Pattie with a third project involving better disinfection that Pattie opens up to only after she has a nightmare. After the ladies working in the salon incorporate Willow’s ideas for better disinfection, the store actually begins to have more business.

Dell also is helped by Willow. Even though he’s ousted from his apartment and sent to live with a roommate, he also gains a family. He’d lived as a lonely bachelor with no friends in a messy apartment and no desire to take responsibility for anything he did. Pattie actually helps to get him organized and cleans his apartment. Willow reprograms his television so the colors are the right hue and the picture fits the screen. When Dell comes to watch television with Quang-ha, he praises Willow for making the television look better. More important that televisions or cleanliness, Willow helps Dell recognize that he needs to be responsible for himself and his life.

Other people who profit from Willow are Mai and Quang-ha. Probably the most significant benefit to them is their new home. While they had been crammed into a garage, they get to live in an apartment with real beds and a bathroom when they take charge of Willow. Mai likes Willow from the beginning by Quang-ha is slower in accepting the girl. Willow spends many hours doing homework for the boy and helping him with his assignments before he begins to realize that she isn’t all bad.

Grief

As Willow works through her grief following her parents’ deaths, she goes through a variety of stages of grief. These stages range from her desire to go back in time to a slow decision to begin living in the present again. At the end of the novel, Willow realizes that despite her loss, her life will go one.

When Willow first learns that her parents are dead, she denies the news. She is numb and wants to go back to a time before her parents’ accident. As she looks around the garage in which the Nguyens live, she sees the unsafe electrical outlets and wishes that the garage would catch fire with her inside so that she could die and be released from the pain she feels. She additionally complains of having trouble breathing and a high heart rate which come with panic and loss.

In the month that Willow spends with the Nguyens in the garage, she is depressed and shows a lack of the desire to live. She is tired and sleeps a good deal of the time. She is unmotivated. She goes through the motions and does things only when she’s told to. As is common in a person suffering with grief, Willow has little interest in the things that had fascinated her at one time, like gardening. During this time, Willow also shows signs of selective memory as well as intentionally blocking out some memories that she believes may cause her pain. For instance, she makes up her mind to purposefully forget the first night after her parents’ deaths, the night during which Pattie lit incense and cried with her. Later, although Willow attends her parents’ memorial service, she can remember little of what was said about them, a sign of selective memory.

It is not until she and the Nguyens are living in Dell’s apartment that Willow begins to find her way out of her grief. Her first step seems to be her decision to start pulling her own weight and help out as much as she can. Next, she starts missing her garden. This desire for a garden prompts her try to live in and make the best of her present circumstances. She decides to start a garden project in the apartment courtyard. This project brings together the members of her hodge podge “family.” One day when they are working on the garden, Willow realizes she is laughing again. Later, after she learns that Pattie and Jairo will be given permanent custody of her, she sits in her new garden and knows that her life will go on, a sure sign that she has made it through the toughest part of her grief.

Plants

When Willow was first classified as begin highly-gifted, her parents helped her start a garden. The garden had a two-fold purpose. It was to both give Willow something to occupy her mind and give her experiences into different forms of communication. Willow takes her gardening experience and uses it to understand and interpret the things she sees in everyday life.

One of the main things that Willow tells Mai that lets the reader know how closely she parallels life with her garden is the idea that the lifecycle of a rose is the same of that of a human. Mai remembers this as she looks at a rose bush while she waits for the bus one day. Willow had said that understanding the lifecycle of these flowers had helped her to understand better life and death than any other explanation anyone had given her.

When Willow struggles with her grief and wonders if she’ll ever feel like living again, she remembers trees that have been burnt in fires. These trees appear to be damaged so badly they’ll never recover, but despite their injuries, they will begin developing new leaves and branches. Willow hopes that she will be like one of these trees.

Willow also compares her situation and that of Dell’s as being part of a flock of birds. She remembers seeing flocks of birds in her garden that seemed to fly as one unity, almost as if they had given up their individuality. She credits this same phenomenon for the reason that Dell gives his apartment up to Pattie so easily. Willow thinks that she and Dell have been taken in as part of Pattie’s flock, therefore they now move as part of the group without injecting their own opinions or desires.

Finally, the garden project at the apartment complex begins to symbolize Willow and her situation in several different ways. The sunflowers, like Willow, are temporary. Just as the sunflowers will bloom in the garden space only for about five weeks, Willow will have a court hearing and will most likely be moved on to a permanent home in that same amount of time. Willow compares herself to these flowers as she realizes her life in the apartments is temporary, but realizes that she is putting down roots despite her attempts not to do so. When the garden project begins to run into snags, Willow overhears the adults talking about how difficult the project has become. Willow wonders if she, also, has become a bigger project than anyone imagined.

Like the garden that is planted in the apartment courtyard comes by surprise from the generosity of people whom Willow has helped in the past, Willow’s future is secured by people she has helped in the past. A nursery owner who had know Willow and her parents offers to bring some things over to help the garden after all Willow’s clippings are lost. He brings all the plants necessary for a full, mature garden. Similarly, Pattie has promised Willow all along that she will not let Willow leave until they find a good place for her. Although it seems to be as big a surprise to Pattie as it is to Willow, it turns out that Pattie decides not to let Willow leave at all. She, with the help of Jairo, decide to apply for permanent guardianship of the girl.

This section contains 2,681 words
(approx. 7 pages at 400 words per page)
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