Adolescence is a time of transition, a time in a child's life when they are not yet adults, but not really children. This makes it a challenge to decide how to deal with them-finding a balance between supervision and freedom, support and independence, is something that parents and society struggle with. And when the adolescent commits a crime, we as a society have trouble finding that balance-are they children who cannot be held accountable for their choices, or are they adults who have defied societal standards and must be punished. I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Heather Gudekauf's novel These Things Hidden.
These Things Hidden interweaves the lives of four women-Allison, Brynn, Charm, and Claire. Five years earlier, 16 year old Allison was convicted of manslaughter in the death of her newborn infant. Released from prison early, she goes to a half-way house and tries to reconnect with her sister, Brynn. Brynn, who at 15 was with her sister on that awful night, has borne the brunt of the fall-out of her sister's crime. Emotionally fragile, bearing the guilt of the infant's death, she struggles to get through each day. Charm, a 20 year old college student, carries a secret that makes it difficult for her to deal with the imminent death of her step-father. Claire, a bookstore owner, marvels daily at the miracle that brought her son Joshua into her life-after years of trying to have a child, she and her husband adopted Joshua after he was left at the fire station as a newborn. None of these women know it, but Joshua is the one thing that connects them all.
Told in the first person by Allison and Brynn, with chapters in the third person for Charm and Claire, this book is about more than just the fairness of holding a 16 year old responsible for the death of her child. It is about family, what it means to be a mother, a sister, a caregiver. Allison and Brynn's parents appeared perfect from the outside, giving their girls every advantage. But emotionally there was very little connection in their family, and when first Allison and then Brynn disappoint them, their parents turn away from them. Charm's mother collected men like trading cards for many years, and Charm feels much closer to her stepfather Gus than to her biological parents. Obviously simply giving birth to a child does not make a person a parent. Claire and her husband are excellent parents to Joshua, but they live with the fear at the back of their mind that his biological parents could show up and ruin their happiness. Gudenkauf paints a portrait of love and guilt and fear and love again through the stories of these women and the ways they are connected to Joshua, and to each other. This novel is women's fiction at its best. Not overly sentimental or sappy, with no easy solutions, the book explores relationships and family in a way that is insightful and engaging.