Monday, September 20, 2021

She's A Bad Seed

 A review of The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker

A good book will make you feel things. Good things, bad things—thrilled, angry, wistful, it doesn’t matter. The magic comes from realizing these fictional people and their fictional problems have wormed their way so deep into your psyche that you become invested in the end of their story. You need to know what happens, and when it does, you leave the story, among other things, immensely satisfied.

A great book evokes the kinds of feelings that wash over you at the end of the last line, that make you laugh out loud or cry. They linger. For hours, sometimes days, making it impossible to pick up anything else. Some people call this a book hangover. At the end of the last page of THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING, I didn’t feel hung over. I felt destroyed. I locked myself in my office and sat in my chair and cried. Days later, a small part of me still aches. Part of me hopes it never stops.


I hadn’t expected any of it. When I picked up The First Day of Spring and read the first couple of pages, I thought I was walking into something twisted. A thriller with a hook I hadn’t read before. I bought it immediately.

The book opens with the eight-year-old protagonist (Chrissie) strangling another child. Tucker writes, “Sweat made it slippy between our skins but I didn’t let go, pressed and pressed until my nails were white. It was easier than I thought it would be.” Already a disturbing image, as Chrissie goes on to describe the fizzy feeling in her stomach when she realizes the boy is dead, the tick-tick-tick sound in her head as her body counts down to when she’ll need to feel the fizzy feeling again, Tucker forces us to confront these two seemingly opposing images—a murderer and a child—and try to reconcile them. It’s disturbing, and you can’t help but agree with the adults—oblivious to the murder—who call her a bad seed. There’s something wrong with Chrissie, they say. She acts out. Bites and kicks and steals and manipulates. And it’s no wonder, because she comes from the alleys where the poorest, most pathetic people live. And as the investigation into what happened to the little boy causes ripples throughout Chrissie’s small community, she tromps, peacock-like, through her days, knowing she is the smartest person in the world because she—and she alone—knows who killed the boy.

In a second timeline, Chrissie is grown and goes by the name Julia. She has her own daughter, Molly, and every day is an exercise in extreme discipline. Julia regiments their days, down to the quarter hour, because she believes it is the only way to keep Molly safe. To properly care for her because, unlike the other mothers around her, Julia doesn’t believe she knows how to comfort Molly. Nothing comes naturally to her. And when Molly falls off a retaining wall and breaks her arm causing Julia’s social worker to insist on a in-person meeting, Julia is convinced the social worker is going to take Molly away. Before that can happen, though, Julia decides to take Molly back to where it all started.

As the story progresses, eight-year-old Chrissie’s behavior spirals. But for every rotten action, every snide remark to show you just how bad Chrissie is, we are also reminded of how young, how sad she is. She tells her best friend that the boy won’t be dead for very long. She knows, because every few months her dad dies and then comes back to life. It isn’t until later that she realizes he doesn’t die at all—he’s locked up for petty theft and public drunkenness.

We spend so long being both fascinated and repulsed by Chrissie’s behavior that when we begin to discover why she acts out—how she steals extra milk and biscuits at school because the only food in her house is a bag of sugar, how she kicks and bites and snarls at the girls whose clothes don’t always smell of piss and sweat—the shame, the pity, creeps up unexpectedly.

As an adult, Julia bares the albatross of her past, making no excuses, all for the sake of her daughter. The thought of losing her fills her with pain, but she can’t help but wonder if she deserves it.

At the heart of this book is a message about growing up poor, being so young and ignored and hungry (for food, for attention, for empathy) you don’t know how to express yourself until the feelings build so high and so tight you have no choice but to explode.

We all have Chrissies in our lives. This book reminds us that every dirty child, every bad seed, is deserving of our empathy. That sometimes, all that stands between a difficult child and ruin is a kind word. A moment of attention. The time is takes to listen and understand.

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