Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Children's Crusade by Anne Packer

Ann Packer's new novel The Children's Crusade will not disappoint fans of her previous novel The Dive From Clausen's Pier .

The Children's Crusade explores the private and corporate failures of the Blair family. Physician Bill returns from the Korean War tired of death; he decides to specialize as a pediatrician. Surrounded by children perhaps he could regain his optimism. First he buys a plot of California land surrounding a California Live Oak tree; he plans to build a home there some day.

He meets Penney, a woman who has never found herself. They fall in love. Penney dreams of having three children. They marry and seem destined for fulfillment and happiness.

The novel fast forwards. There are now four Blair children: Rebecca the analytic psychologist; Robert the dependable doctor; the romantic Ryan who teaches at his childhood school; and James, the 'problem' child, impetuous and emotional. Penney has discovered a career in art. Bill has died. Their childhood home is now in the 'Silicon Valley', rented out until Penney and one child decide to sell.

Packer allows us to discover each character in the first person, learning about their childhood memories and adult life. The characters are vivid and alive, complicated and flawed, sympathetic and likable.

Penny became overwhelmed by family needs, her self-expectations to be the perfect housewife, and especially by her youngest child James. He was the kid who soiled his pants and sat in a patch of poison oak while removing them; whose emotional outbursts could only be tamed by his father's calm presence. Penney turned a shed into a separate world where she immersed herself in art made of found objects. 'Prefect' Bill kept the family together in spite of his long hours as a pediatrician. With an absentee mother, the older children had to care for James. They are overwhelmed and fail. When their mother started to drift away Rebecca had come up with the idea of a 'crusade,' finding ways to involve their mother back in their lives.

Adult James returns to his family to take stock of his choices. After years of restlessness, he settles in Eugene, OR where he has become part of a community that accepts him and affirms his strengths. James now has to make a hard decision. He is in a relationship that threatens to destroy the community that has given him family. Instead of support he finds himself trapped in the 'loser' role of his childhood, his siblings still in the roles of caretakers, not friends. It has been years since he has spoken to the mother who emotionally abandoned him. It is time they met again.

These characters have stayed in my mind over a  week as I worked on my review. So many books fade away quickly. This family has become part of my own world, as if I knew them somewhere along the way. And that is about the best thing anyone can say about a book.

I received a free e-book from the publisher through NetGalley for a fair and unbiased review..

The Children's Crusade
Ann Packer
Scribner
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
ISBN: 9781476710457
$26.99 hard cover