Trigger warnings for child neglect.
I’ve always thought one of the biggest questions our species has had to wrestle with is forgiveness and unforgivableness. Forgiveness is hard. The worse the crime, the more impossible it seems to forgive the perpetrator. It’s little wonder that, at least in Western culture, we talk about things that are unforgivable. We struggle to design just solutions that punish the criminal and make appropriate reparations to the victims. In fact, we seem to leave punishment to our governments and atonement to religion. I’ve even struggled to write this opening paragraph because I just lack the vocabulary to be precise about my thoughts. Ever since I finished Nancy Tucker’s searing exploration of forgiveness and unforgiveness The First Day of Spring, I’ve been thinking hard about whether there are such things as unforgiveable crimes and just punishment. This novel is an amazing exploration of impossible questions.
Chrissie, the protagonist of The First Day of Spring, starts her crimes early. On the first page of the novel and at the shocking age of eight, Chrissie strangles another child to death. This is the kind of crime that shocks us. The victim is a child. The perpetrator is a child. We don’t have laws for this kind of situation. And it’s rare enough that this kind of crime just short circuits us. It’s only after several chapters from Chrissie’s perspective that we start to learn how a little girl became “a bad seed”—a term that a neighbor uses and Chrissie adopts. The way that Chrissie has grown up is another crime. Her mother is extremely neglectful. Chrissie is left to fend for herself, down to creating strategies for cadging food out of mothers in the neighborhood and getting extra milk at school. The only time she gets attention from any adults is when she misbehaves. It doesn’t take a semester of Psychology 101 to know what this teaches Chrissie to do. None of this excuses what Chrissie does, but it helps to explain it a little.
Chrissie’s chapters alternate with chapters narrated by a woman named Julia. Julia is Chrissie, more than a decade later. We learn early on that Chrissie was sentenced to a Home, a secure group home for juvenile offenders that rehabilitates more than punishes. After her release, Chrissie is given a new name and a chance to restart her life. By the time we meet her again, Chrissie/Julia has had a daughter. Molly is Chrissie’s entire reason for living these days, and she is terrified that social services will take Molly away. These chapters fascinated me Chrissie has changed so much that she hardly seems like the same person. She has been completely transformed by years of enforced boundaries, good nutrition, and maturity. Instead of acting out of rage and impulse, Julia is afraid of not following the rules. She emotionally punishes herself by avoiding happiness and good things in life. Her “punishment” wasn’t the kind of punishment that one grows to resent. Instead, Chrissie’s time in that Home saved her from being a monster for the rest of her life.
But, as we read Julia’s chapters in The First Day of Spring, I was constantly thinking about the rightness of Chrissie’s punishment. Nothing that could’ve happened to Chrissie that would truly punish her for what she did. Chrissie’s extreme hunger and the parental neglect are complicating factors. They did so much psychological damage to Chrissie that her legal defense could probably have made a good case for Chrissie being not guilty by reason of insanity. When I read Julia’s chapters, I found myself so sympathetic to the transformed character that I felt that any further official punishment would be like punishing the wrong person. The First Day of Spring is the kind of novel that I wish I had read with others, either friends or a book group. There is so much to think and talk about here that I would love to know about what others think. I’m not a parent. Would I think differently of Chrissie/Julia if I had a child of my own? I’m also not a psychologist or social worker, so I don’t know if Chrissie’s situation would cause the behaviors seen here. Could Chrissie be more a product of nurture than nature? What on earth can or should be done with child offenders?
All of this is handled in solid prose that doesn’t belabor its themes. The dialogue feels realistic and brutally honest. There are so many ways that The First Day of Spring could’ve gone wrong. That it didn’t just makes this book even more spectacular. Tucker is deft hand at treating heavy topics with a light touch. I can’t say enough good things about this novel. If you’re the kind of reader who can handle insoluble, emotionally wrenching topics, I think you’ll love this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.