Monday, January 30, 2017

Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

Counting Thyme is a sweet, poignant novel about a young girl's struggle to cope with the changes in her life when her family moves from their home in California to New York city so her brother can receive a last ditch treatment for cancer.

Eleven year old Thyme Owen's family has decided to move from their home in California to New York city when her brother Val is accepted into a drug trial that might save his life. Five year old Val was diagnosed nine months ago with neuroblastoma or nerve cancer.

After spending their last week with Grandma Kay in San Diego, Thyme, her mother and older sister Coriander (Cori) and younger brother Valerian (Val) flew to New York where they were met by her dad who had travelled ahead of them. Thyme is not happy about this temporary move because it means leaving behind her best friend Shani, whom she's known since preschool. The plan is for the Owen family to stay in New York for three months; December, January and February while Val is treated. However when Thyme pressed her mother on whether they would be home in time for Shani's birthday on March 6th, her mother was vague.

Thyme and her family move into a three bedroom apartment in a four-story brick walk-up. Cori and Thyme are not thrilled to be sharing a bedroom. Thyme puts up the Calendar of Us Shani made for her. She also unpacks her Thyme Jar, a glass jar containing slips of paper stating a certain amount of free time she's earned due to chores, good grades or helping out. The time slips began after her eleventh birthday, when Val got sick. Thyme used them at first to spend time with Shani, but once she learned they were moving to New York, she began to save them in the hopes she could return home early to stay with her Grandma Kay or Shani's family.

Cori and Thyme start school in New York with Thyme attending MS 221 near their apartment. She is given a tour the first day by Principal Williams and meets Emily Anderson who takes her to her home room class taught by Mr. Ellison. In this class Thyme meets twins Delia and Celia and a boy named Jake Reese who has "brown skin and hair that stuck out like springs all around his head, dark at the root and sand brown at the end." and who gives Thyme "a floaty feeling". Thyme introduces herself but doesn't tell the class the real reason for her move.

While Thyme struggles to adjust to New York, her older sister Cori seems to have no problems, joining the drama club at school. A call to Shani on the weekend is wonderful until Thyme learns that she has partnered with Jenny Hargrove to finish their social studies project.  When Val begins his treatment, Thyme meets Mrs. Ravelli, a feisty Italian lady hired to help take her to school and cook dinners for the family. Val's treatments cause him considerable pain and this is distracting for Thyme at school as she worries about her brother. One day at lunch, Thyme helps Emily and her friend Lizzie copy flyers for Mr. Calhoun for the Wizard of Oz play that will run during Spring Fling. After Thyme rescues the ruined flyers for Emily, she offers to help Thyme settle into the school.

When Lizzie decides to audition for the part of Dorothy which Emily also wants and believes she should get, Thyme finds herself caught in the middle. She shouldn't care - after all she's leaving New York at the end of February, long before Spring Fling. Meanwhile Cori confronts their mother about her silence on what's happening with Val's treatments and they learn that doctors still have no idea whether the treatment will be successful or even if it's working.

But as Val's treatment progresses, Thyme finds herself building a life in New York city with her new friends Lizzie and Emily and coming to the realization that she might not return to San Diego, especially when she learns of the secret her parents have been keeping from her. When Val experiences a setback, suddenly saving time to return to San Diego is not so important when your younger brother may be running out of time.


Author Melanie Conklin first learned about neuroblastoma as a new mother. She quickly became involved in baking cookies for the fund raiser, Cookies For Kids' Cancer. Childhood cancer strikes fear into parents like few other illnesses and it is an illness that has a far reaching effect not only on the children but also their families.

 Counting Thyme explores the challenges families experience as they cope with a family member fighting cancer through the perspective of an eleven year old girl. The focus of the novel is on the journey Thyme experiences over the period of several months: that of accepting her family's situation and the life changes that occur as a result.

Thyme and her sister Cori struggle to cope with Val's cancer diagnosis. His acceptance into a drug trial means temporarily moving to a new city, leaving behind friends, family and starting a new school mid-year. Because the move is to be temporary, Thyme isn't interested in making new friends, only maintaining her friendship with Shani. Her focus is backwards rather than towards the possibilities New York might offer. Although Thyme loves her brother, she wants to be back in San Diego and everything she does, whether it's helping her mother or doing things for Val, is to earn time which she hopes will allow her to leave New York City and return to San Diego before her family. She wants to resume her old life.

Mrs. Ravelli helps Thyme recognize the positive changes in her life. She tells Thyme that based on her life experience making new friends is a good start and that soon they will be "old friends". This upsets Thyme because she is still focused on her friendship with Shani. The possibilities of new friends and experiences in New York is unsettling. "...the idea settled strangely in my mind. With every person I helped, with every conversation I had, I was making ties. Ties to school. To New York. That wasn't what I wanted, but it was happening anyway."

Mrs. Ravelli tells Thyme when she first arrived in New York as an immigrant she was told to go to Little Italy for good pasta like that in the old country. However she found she had to make her own pasta for it to taste like what she remembered. Using this analogy she advises Thyme to make her life the way she wants it, despite her brother's illness. Thyme wonders does that mean returning to her life in San Diego or facing "the promise of something new"?  Thyme finds herself being pulled towards the latter as she develops new friendships with Lizzie, Emily and Jake and becomes involved in the school Spring Fling play - the Wizard of Oz.

When Jake mentions that he doesn't understand why Dorothy didn't get out of the way, knowing the tornado was coming, Thyme understands Dorothy's predicament because her life has been caught up in the tornado of serious illness. "Sometimes, you don't have a choice about where you go. Because it's somebody else's story you're living..."

But more and more life in New York becomes less Val's story and more her own story. She and Jake work on recreating the sound of a tornado for the play,  their friendship blossoms with a hint of a first crush and Thyme finds herself caring immensely when her friends Lizzie and Emily have a falling-out.

Thyme is finally forced to accept her family's circumstances when she discovers her parents have sold their house in San Diego and when Val becomes seriously sick. Her parents acknowledge that they should have told her but they also stress that she is an important part of the family and necessary for Val's recovery. Her dad tells her, "You need all the parts to make the press work. All of them together. That means you, too." while her mother says "Thyme, you're the glue. You're the one Val talks to when he's sad. You're so strong and so brave, taking on this whole new place the way you have..." Thyme realizes that "the missing piece wasn't San Diego after all. It was knowing that I counted. Seeing that I belonged."

The time that Thyme has so diligently collected in her Thyme jar takes on a new meaning for her. The Thyme jar represents her old life in San Diego. She was collecting "time" as a way of holding onto that life. But when Val becomes seriously ill, Thyme realizes that Val is the one who needs that time - the time to go through more treatments and get well. Being healthy Thyme go back whenever to see her friend Shani and in fact her parents offer to send her back on spring break. But for Val, time is more valuable. Realizing this Thyme gives the jar to her mother, she lets it go and in so doing, lets go of her desire to return to San Diego.She realizes that Val needs the time in New York and she needs to be with him.

"I worried that I was too late figuring out what mattered. Too late choosing my brother. It was funny how I'd thought my worries would go away if I could just make it home. But I would have the same problems no matter where I went, because I would still be me, and worries attach to people, not places."

The title of the book then is a double entendre referring to Thyme counting up the hours she saves so she can return to her old life in San Diego and to "Counting Thyme" as in Thyme's life also being important to her family and to herself. Thyme believes her parents are "too busy with Val and work and stuff to listen to me." but Mrs. Ravelli reveals that her mama talks about her all the time.Eventually Thyme discovers that she does count to her parents and to Val.

Conklin vividly portrays life for a family coping with serious illness. Thyme's Grandma Kay has told her that when she and Grandpa moved to San Diego "she spent a lot of time eating canned tuna and waiting for life to go back to normal after they moved." However, "she discovered that there was no normal - just normal for now." Thyme realizes that for her family whose life revolves around Val's illness,  "normal for now meant that things were always changing. Cancer had changed everything: the things I ate, the place I lived...what kind of normal would we find when we got back to San Diego?"

When Val spikes a fever, Mrs. Ravelli comes to Emily's Christmas party to take Thyme to the hospital. Her family spends the days before Christmas waiting to hear back from Val's doctor. Their family mood is often affected by how Val's health goes and good times, while relished, can be fleeting. Thyme states, "When good things happened with Val, the happy feelings stuck to us for days, like a coating of invisible fairy dust -- but even fairy dust runs out of power eventually."

Later on when Val begins his second cycle of treatment, Cori tells everyone about planning a fund-raiser for her drama club and Thyme notes that "for a few minutes, dinner felt normal. Like it was okay to talk about other things besides cancer treatments and acupuncture and blood tests."

Thyme doesn't tell her friends or classmates the real reason she and her family have come to New York because she doesn't want to "become the poor girl whose brother has cancer...And then that's all they would care about, because cancer is the most fascinating thing in the world when it isn't happening to you...And they can't help assuming things...Like, that cancer boy's sister wouldn't want to participate in the end-of-year talent show, because, obviously, she's too busy with cancer-y things to do a skit..."

Overall, Counting Thyme is a heart-warming story about looking forward instead of back, about identity, family and figuring out what matters most in life.

Book Details:

Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.     2016
300 pp.

No comments: