The Children’s Crusade is a deeply thoughtful book about a California family struggling to overcome “maternal deprivation”. Author Ann Packer slowly builds up steam in her recent novel, and she brings to life a very real household whose inhabitants could live next door. She begins with patriarch Bill Blair as he ends his Navy service and finds a beautiful piece of undeveloped land on which to build a legacy of home and family. A caring and thoughtful, respected pediatrician, we hear throughout the book Bill’s mantra, “children must be cared for” - a poignant consideration as he progresses through his career, marries and raises four children.
Light in plot, and more of a family journey, Packer leads us through the Blair family beginnings - a happy start in wedlock, then a slow but mighty disaffection of his marriage. With each child, Bill’s wife Penny becomes more distant, frustrated, and finally removes herself from the family in pursuit of a career as an artist. We see each child in a state of anxiety while they feel and react to the calm dissonance of their father and obvious resentment from their mother, all while they try hard to please her.
The novel effectively leads us through events of the children’s progress over the years. Where the book shines though is in the chapters Packer writes in the voice of each of the four children in adulthood. Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James each have a distinct personality that really brings this story to life. Robert, the oldest, hides an inner conflict, but follows in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor. We find him as a husband and parent himself, finally facing his emotions. Rebecca, a psychiatrist is an interesting character as she examines her own life as well as her siblings’ and parents’ struggles through her professional lens. Ryan, sweet, and a painfully sensitive pleaser, is closest to Penny. James is the youngest, most troubled and erratic, who comes home to California after years of absence. It is James who reignites for them memories of their distant mother, returning raw emotions to the surface.
The Children’s Crusade is an intimate examination of a complicated family. Penny sacrifices her family and we witness the scars they bear. Packer’s characters each seem a bit exaggerated, deep within their own personality traits, yet I enjoyed the book and think it’s worthy of attention.
Vickie’s Rating: 3 Stars