Sunday, November 19, 2017

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee

Halfway Normal is a novel that explores the struggles a young girl encounters reintegrating back into life outside a hospital after her cancer treatment.

Twelve year old Norah Levy underwent two years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is now well enough to return to school. During her illness she was tutored by Ayesha,  a young woman who also survived cancer. This has led to Norah being ahead by a grade in math and science.

Norah's parents divorced when she was nine-years-old and she now lives with her Dad who is a sports journalist and his new girlfriend Nicole, just outside of New York City. Her mom resides in California where she teaches biology at a college but she is on leave, staying with her friend Lisa.

Norah received her treatment at Phipps-Davison, a famous cancer hospital. Now in remission, Norah is determined to return to school. Her pediatric social worker, Raina Novak warns her it will not be easy.

But returning to school proves far more difficult than Norah ever imagined. First there are all the rules her parents have imposed: no after-school activities, no sleepovers, no school bus, no school lunch and avoiding the bathroom at all cost. Norah immediately notices that no one, not her classmates nor the teachers use the dreaded "cancer" word. Because her hair is short, she is sometimes mistaken for a boy which greatly upsets her. Then there is the attitude of her fellow students to contend with. Norah is considered by some students as "The Girl Who." had cancer. Other students don't like the special treatment Norah receives and believes she wants attention. Norah is also struggling to deal with the fact that many of her best friends did not visit her in the hospital. This includes her close friend Silas Blackhurst.

On her first day, Norah meets Griffin Kirkley, a grade eight student new to Aaron Burr. Norah finds Griffin with his spiky reddish hair, cute. They immediately discover a mutual love of  mythical beasts and Greek myths. However, Norah decides not to tell Griffin about being ill with cancer because she doesn't want him to treat her like her grade seven friends. Griffin is impressed with Norah's artwork and asks her to draw a griffin on his bass guitar. Because of Griffin's interest in the Afterschool program, Norah also decides she wants to be involved and be a part of the Art Club.

In English, Norah reveals that her favourite Greek myth is the one of Persephone who is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter discovers where Persephone has been taken and threatens to let everything on earth die if Zeus does not return her to the world above. Hermes is sent by Zeus and convinces Hades to release Persephone. Unfortunately, Persephone has eaten some pomegranate seeds, which are food of the dead. This meant she must return to the underworld. However, Zeus arranges for Persephone to spend half a year in the underworld with Hades and the rest of the year with Demeter. She impresses their English teacher, Ms. Farrell with her knowledge of Greek myths.

Norah struggles in her relationships at school, confronting Silas, confusing her best friend Harper and she begins acting out. She stays for the Afterschool program, disobeying her parents, she skips class to eat lunch with Griffin during grade eight lunch so he won't know she's a grade seven student, and she gets her ears pierced without her parents permission. But when a bake sale for breast cancer deeply upsets Norah, she is forced to face her internal conflict and figure out a way to tell her friends what she's feeling and return to school.


Halfway Normal portrays the journey of twelve-year-old Norah Levy as she re-integrates into life after two years of battling cancer. The novel's main theme is that of empathy and resilience. Norah is eager to attend school but Raina Novak, her pediatric social worker attempts to prepare her for the experience. She warns Norah that it will be challenging. "Don't expect your friendships to be just like they were two years ago. You've been through something very big here, yes, but your friends have been through their own situations, which are big to them. And you haven't been a part of that world." In other words, she's telling Norah that her friends will likely not understand her experience in the same way that Norah will not realize how they have changed over the past two years.

This is initial expressed in the friendship between Norah and Silas Blackhurst, Norah's best friend before she became ill.  Norah and Silas spent their time together before her illness, riding their bikes "patrolling the neighborhood for evil elves." But when Norah returns to school she discovers that Silas has changed; he's interested in girls and he likes Kylie Shen. Norah is baffled by this interest. "...I knew that Kylie was exactly the sort of girl boys crush on. My problem was that I couldn't see Silas being one of those boys. He'd never liked girls before. He'd never even noticed that I was a girl." Norah is angry with Silas because he never came to visit her in the hospital. Although Norah wants to resume her friendship with Silas, it becomes apparent that they have both changed significantly.

Norah views every action of her classmates and teachers as being coloured by their knowledge she had cancer. Addison Ventura  makes a heart sign and Norah believes it "... had to be a cancer reference, because why would Addison heart me?" When Ms. Farrell approaches her in class, smiling, Norah thinks, "As soon as I saw that smile, I knew she knew everything...Probably all the teachers knew. Even the office ladies and the janitors." 

Norah is preoccupied with people knowing about her having cancer and she's unprepared for the variety of reactions she experiences from both her classmates and teachers. Some of her friends are interested and want to know about her illness. While Kylie Shen doesn't want to hear "all the gory details", Harrison Warner wants to know the names of the medications so he can look them up later. Ms. Castro won't say the word "cancer" and encourages her to make use of the elevator instead of the stairs. Norah finds this all very off-putting.

Others feel Norah is using her illness as a means to get attention. Norah's teachers are willing to offer her special consideration; Mr. O'Brien the social studies teacher, offers Norah extra time to complete assignments while Mr. Ludlow the PE teacher tells her she can sit out whenever she wants. Addison believes Norah enjoys this attention and at one point in front of their classmates, Addison claims that Norah is like the human weaver Arachne of Greek mythology, because she likes the attention.

Although most people are well meaning, Norah misinterprets everyone's actions and words. When Ms. Farrell praises Norah about her knowledge of Greek myths and refers to her as their "expert mythologist" to Norah "it sounded like 'expert oncologist'. Which I knew wasn't what she meant, obviously. But all gushy praise sounded suspiciously cancer-related." In Ms. Farrell's English class she believes their first assignment is an attempt to get her "cancer story" and so she produces a composition that receives a low mark. Later on when getting her ears pierced with Aria Maldonado, Norah misinterprets Mrs. Maldonado's offer to pay for her ear piercing and the green dragon earrings as a "cancer consolation prize."

Norah's desire to be free of been known as "cancer girl" leads her to be dishonest with her new friend, Griffin.  Norah avoids telling him that she's been away from school for two years because of cancer. Instead she tells Griffin, she is not new to the school but "More like recycled, actually."  The thought that the grade eight students might know her story is horrifying to Norah. "I was more afraid that once the eighth graders discovered 'my whole story', I'd turn into Cancer Girl for them, just the way I was Cancer Girl for the seventh grade. And if that happened, maybe Griffin would change the way he treated me." Her best friend Harper calls Norah out on her dishonesty toward Griffin, but Norah is not ready to accept this. Instead she doubles down and feels that Harper doesn't understand her situation.

It is an English assignment, to write a five-minute speech from the point of view of mythic character, that helps Norah sort out and explain her complicated feelings about her struggle with cancer. But only after Norah experiences an emotional crisis at the breast cancer bake sale being held by her classmates. Norah balks at the unintended hypocrisy of her classmates like Kylie who wouldn't allow Norah to talk about her cancer but who pins a pink ribbon on her sweater, an others who eat pink-frosted cupcakes but never acknowledge her situation.

Norah feels she can't convey to her friends and classmates what she's experienced. "I couldn't pretend I'd never been sick, because that's who I was. The Girl Who; but I couldn't explain what that meant, because to do it I'd have to speak Martian. So it was like I was trapped halfway between two worlds --Sick and Not Sick- and didn't completely belong in either one." Her tutor, Ayesha explains to Norah that she can only keep moving forward and that she must find a way to help people understand and to give them a chance to understand. Ayesha suggests that maybe Norah doesn't want people to understand. "Because maybe you like that a little bit, feeling that nobody gets what you've been through..." This leads Norah to acknowledge that she feels angry and that she needs to work harder at moving forward in her life.

The result is that Norah acts to move forward. She talks to Griffin about why she never told him about her cancer and eventually apologizes. When Ms. Farrell offers her support after Norah returns to school, Norah thanks her even though she still feels like her teacher wants a cancer story. She doesn't get angry this time when Ms. Farrell asks her to dig deeper into the Persephone myth and eventually comes up with a brilliant interpretation of the myth as it applies to her life.

Halfway Normal succeeds in capturing the complicated emotional life of a young cancer survivor. The dominant theme in the novel is the struggle we all face to share and understand each other's pain - an important life skill. Dee explains to young readers the difference between sympathy and empathy in a English lesson with Ms. Farrell. Norah is unable to empathize with her classmates, believing it is they who need to understand her. In English class she tells Ms. Farrell that she doesn't believe "empathy is always possible...Because sometimes the other person's experience is so weird that you can't put yourself in their shoes. I mean, you may think you can, but you really can't." Similarly her classmates are struggling to understand what Norah has experienced.

Dee creates a rather unlikable character in Norah Levy, putting the reader in a similar situation to that of the characters in the novel; readers experience little sympathy or empathy for her. But as Norah works to express what she's feeling and ultimately succeeds, the reader develops empathy for Norah.

Halfway Normal is populated with very modern characters; her mother, father and his girlfriend end up in a sort of accepting, working, blended family for the benefit of Norah while Ayesha is the token gay character.

Although Barbara Dee's son has had cancer, Dee states that the story in Halfway Normal is not about her son's illness, nor is it based on her family's experience. She mentions that she undertook considerable research for the novel and that is evident in the writing. Halfway Normal is a sensitive, caring exploration of cancer and its toll on a young person but its important message is that of moving forward and of the importance of empathy and resilience.

Book Details:

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee
Toronto: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division    2017
243 pp.

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