The Children’s Crusade

By Ann Packer

(Scribner, $26.99, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Ann Packer is a bestselling novelist who lives in California. Her best known novel is The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, for which she won a Kate Chopin Literary Award, one of her many honors. Her other bestselling novel is Songs Without Words, and Packer also has published two short fiction collections, Swim Back to Me and Mendocino and Other Stories. She has written for The New Yorker, and her work has been printed in O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies.

What is this book about?

2015 is a good year for novels that trace characters’ lives going back decades – as in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and the new trilogy by Jane Smiley – and Ann Packer mines that territory well in The Children’s Crusade.  The story begins in 1954 when Bill Blair buys three woodsy acres south of San Francisco, land that today is known as Silicon Valley. He marries Penny, who becomes a deeply unfulfilled artist and mother of four, and Bill becomes a successful pediatrician. Three of the four Blair children do well and remain in the area: Robert  as a doctor, Rebecca as a psychiatrist and Ryan as a teacher – but black sheep and confirmed wanderer James, the fourth and unplanned child) refuses to settle down.  Ever.  Penny gradually withdraws emotionally from her family, choosing to spend her time in the backyard shed she calls her studio and eventually at an artists’ colony in Taos. When, decades later, Bill dies, the family finally must deal with the fate of the house and their frayed connections.

Why you’ll like it:

Packer writes with style and subtlety, deftly using flashbacks to fully portray her main characters as they age. This is a family saga of the kind that can enmesh readers, whether they find parallels to their own relationships or just become entranced by the plot and people Packer has created.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Packer begins her well-crafted family saga from the ground up with pediatrician Bill Blair’s Portola Valley, Calif., land purchased in 1954. Bill marries Penny, a young woman eager to have children—but she didn’t count on four kids, which forges her identity as a mother instead of the artist she yearns to become. Her children are intuitively aware of her distance and poignantly try to find a way to bring her closer to them. Their stories unfold through distinctive narrative styles, including both first- and third-person sections, suited to the characters: stressed internist Robert, brilliant psychiatrist Rebecca, dreamy teacher Ryan, and reckless drifter James. The multiple perspectives help render the complicated family fully. Of the siblings, James is the only one to relocate, and he periodically returns over the years. The impetus for his current visit stems from an idea that shocks his siblings, prompting them to examine their childhood to find the answer. “Or rather, I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of the filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times,” Rebecca thinks. Packer is an accomplished storyteller whose characters are as real as those you might find around your dinner table. Readers will be taken with this vibrant novel.”

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette says: “A sublime and intelligent exploration of one family and its mythology of sorts… Ms. Packer is a wonderful portraitist, allowing childhood moments to unfold in all their riveting innocence (including a breathtakingly perfect, terribly sad music recital scene) and following the family as choices beget choices and lives intertwine or unwind… This entertaining, poetic novel layers a multitude of human contradictions, and what is most moving is that even with so much hostility and melancholy, the family story here is one of love. It is about how we return again and again to understand, to make things right, even as we seek to move on from ancient pain.”

An Best Book of April 2015 review says: “Have you ever come across a family with secrets? One that, no matter how educated, well-heeled, and essentially decent, still manages to miss connections, hurt each other and harbor ancient slights for what seems like forever? For you, reading Ann Packer’s new novel may bring you comfort if not joy. (If you’ve never known or been that kind of family. . .well, then you’re either a saint or a liar). Packer lays out the story of the Blair family, father/doctor Bill, his wife Penny and their four children, the last of whom, James (it is obvious from the beginning, if only because he’s the sole sibling with a non-R name) was unexpected, a mistake. Beginning in northern California in 1954 – “long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley” – Packer takes us through five decades in the lives of the Blair family via the voices of its members; but if Robert, Ryan, Rebecca and James are the storytellers here, it is their mother Penny who is the heart of the book. Married to a man who’s almost too perfect to be true, Penny is a would-be artist who chafed at the traditional role society had assigned her and who must, ultimately, make choices on her own behalf. In vigilant detail, Packer chronicles the seemingly tiny ways that personal needs and memories from childhood make us the people we can’t help but be for the rest of our lives.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: The critically acclaimed Packer has written an engrossing story of the Blair family, their secrets, wounds, and struggles for second chances. In 1954, Bill Blair, starting his career as a physician, buys wooded property in the hills near Palo Alto, CA, to build a house and start a family. Sadly, in fewer than ten years, his wife, Penny, always moody and distracted, has distanced herself from Bill and their four children: brilliant Robert, headstrong Rebecca, dreamy Ryan, and wild child James. She moves into an outbuilding/pottery studio but soon leaves for an artists’ community in Taos. Eventually, three of the children marry and follow respectable careers, all living near the family home occupied by their father until his death. Bill leaves the house to the children, stipulating that if they sell, they need approval of one other sibling and Penny. Then James, still the rude impetuous problem child and sporadically in touch over the years, shows up needing money. The resulting conflict stirs up heart-wrenching memories and resentments. VERDICT Packer offers a flawless, compassionate portrayal of each family member at both their best and worst and shows what a strong hold the past has on the present. Literary fiction at its finest; highly recommended.

Says Kirkus in its stared review: “A young doctor buys a piece of land in a place that will later be known as Silicon Valley, building a house that will shape his family for decades. Packer is an expert at complicated relationships; she likes to show more than two sides to every story. Who’s responsible for the fracturing of the Blair family? The obvious answer is Penny, a woman oppressed by domesticity, who retreats from her husband and four children to spend all her time in the shed—she calls it her studio—where she works on collages and mugs made of too-thick pottery, eventually even sleeping there. Or could her husband, Bill, a pediatrician with endless patience and empathy for kids, have pushed his wife away? Perhaps it was James, the youngest (and unplanned) child, a holy terror from the day he was born, who tipped his family over the edge. In beautifully precise prose, Packer tells the Blairs’ story, alternating chapters between the past, when the children were young, and the present, four years after their father’s death, when they each get a chance to tell their own stories in the first person. While James has bounced around the world, his siblings—Robert, a doctor; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a teacher—all live near their childhood home, which James wants to sell. Emotions have never had so many shadings as in Packer’s fiction; she can tease apart every degree of ambivalence in her characters, multiplying that exponentially when everyone has different desires and they all worry about finding fulfillment while also caring for each other—except, perhaps, Penny. But though we rarely see Penny’s perspective on why she withdrew from her family, we can fill in the blanks; it’s the 1960s and ’70s, a time when women were searching for a larger role in the world. Packer seems to set Penny up as the villain, but even that view becomes complicated by the end. When you read Packer, you’ll know you’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.”



When is it available?

This engrossing novel can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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