The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker
Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Childhood, Literary
“I am here. I am here. I am here. You will not forget me.”
These are the words painted on a wall by 8-year-old Chrissie, a girl so desperate for attention in a world that gives her none that she commits a reprehensible act. She lives alone with her mother and everything, including love, is in short supply. She is starving for the things a child needs to thrive, powerless to change anything in her life. This becomes her driving force, leading her to use her own hands to take control. She strangles a toddler. From this shocking act, author Nancy Tucker excavates the deepest layers of the human psyche in her debut, The First Day of Spring.
Rather than taking a bird’s eye view, Tucker nestles into Chrissie’s being from the novel’s opening sentence. In doing so, no other perspective matters, but this is no bid for sympathy, just one little girl’s worldview. A little girl who kicks you if you try to hug her, mocks you for kindness. She is broken, deprived in every sense of the word. Her mother tells her her father is dead, but then he reappears, challenging her concept of what “dead” means. She takes Chrissie to an adoption agency when she’s eight and tries to leave her with a woman in the waiting room. The last time she cooked was when Chrissie was seven. Chrissie steals what she can and subsists on raw sugar, meals at other children’s homes, and school milk. Her teeth are rotting, she’s had ring worm and lice. She is also the fierce protector of her only friend, Linda.
Taken all at once, Chrissie’s story and actions would be almost impossible to read. Tucker splits the novel’s narrative in chapters between the young girl of the past and the woman of the present. She goes by Julia now and is the single mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Molly. In doing this, the child’s perspective plays off against that of the adult, creating a different kind of pain. Julia’s self-awareness is stuck in her childhood self. She is a “bad seed”. She’s paid for her crime, but the past never leaves her.She lives in fear of Molly being taken away from her and of being a bad mother and yet, she can’t let go of her own mother. She continues trying to see her, to show her Molly, all in hopes of some kind of affirmation and acknowledgement.
The First Day of Spring is magnetic in its pull. Everyday bits and pieces of life superimposed over the mind of a child, who, though damaged, is still a child with the black and white logic of one. This gives Chrissie’s mind a weary wisdom, as when her mother is berating her for missing her father—saying she doesn’t need him because Chrissie has her.
It was like saying I didn’t need a toothbrush because I had a twig, or I didn’t need a blanket because I had a sheet of tinfoil. The two things weren’t the same: the one I wanted was what I needed, and the one I had was much, much worse.
There is much to process in The First Day of Spring, especially in the realm of responsibility and blame. How far up the chain do they go? To neighbors, teachers, other parents who saw a malnourished, troublesome child, but did nothing? A non-existent child protection agency? Or does the weight rest solely on an irresponsible narcissistic mother and an absent father? Regardless of fault, the damage is done to two children. One a victim of the other and the other a bright, fearless girl whose energy and drive are warped by her environment.
Throughout The First Day of Spring these and other questions arise, challenging and confronting the reader. Tucker’s gift lies in dismantling judgment and righteousness, on both sides of the equation, and toppling common beliefs like maternal instinct. She takes a character, easily viewed with antipathy, and without excuse or apology, renders her fully real.
I read this novel a month ago. It’s one of those books I closed my eyes after finishing, to seal it into place. It’s also one that I feel ill equipped to review because my leaden words can’t possibly convey the breadth of Tucker’s gift. It’s uncomfortable reading, but she releases grace and resilience from the pain of Chrissie’s story. The First Day of Spring is extraordinary.
Backlist Beauties: Another outstanding option for fiction about murder from the perspective of a child is Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her. For more of Nancy Tucker’s gripping writing, she has a memoir, The Time In-Between.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Riverhead Books in exchange for an honest review.*