The Children’s Crusade: A Novel by Ann Packer (New York: Scribner, 2015. 440 pp)

Ann Packer was born in Stanford, California and attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, the Michener-Copernicus Society, and the National Endowment of the Arts. Her work has earned her many prizes, including the Kate Chopin Literary Award. She divides her time between the Bay Area, New York, and Maine.

From Milk to Solids

The shift from childhood to adulthood offers a profound sense of understanding about the pressures of parenting. The circumstances and behaviors once labeled oppressive and unfair become notes of grace, understood in intention. Parenting is difficult. It makes sense when a parent might just want to take a break from it all.

But more interestingly to me, the way one parents inevitably shifts from kid to kid. From the perspective of an end experience, I will be a different dad to my oldest and my youngest. Despite being one person, they will perceive and label me based on these distinct experiences.

At an extreme, the difference in perspective makes it possible for someone to be an exemplary parent to one kid and two steps short of evil for another kid.

This device frames the narrative for The Children’s Crusade.

Exploring Family Relationships

Ann Packer’s novel explores the inter-relationships between four children and their parents. Set in the Bay Area, the novel switches between early-stage family developments and the children fully grown.

Chapter by chapter, the novel explores the historical roots of each relationship and then pulls the reader into the present-day as the children must make a difficult decision about selling the family house.

On top of it all, mistakes of yesteryear make the relationships of today all the more difficult.

Dr. Bill Blair and his wife, Penny, provide all the material wants for their four kids. But something is missing. The father, so devoted to pediatrics, has little left in the tank for time spent well back home. And yet, the quality of the relationships he forms with his children provide proof points for the current-day versions of these kids.

Their mother, though, moves farther and farther away from the core of family operations. Her passions for art take a front seat to the emotional needs of her progeny, to the point that the children plan a crusade to get their mother re-engaged with them.

“Since James’s birth she’d been overwhelmed by the children—by James, really—but today had been lovely, and once Ryan started back to school, her time would be her own. She was almost forty, ready to start a new chapter of her life. During the family’s recent week at Sea Ranch she’d gathered dozens of shells from the beach and was planning to decorate something with them. And she had a new five-pound bag of clay and some colored wax for making sand candles. She could hardly wait to get started” (97-98).

Who Will We Become?

Here, too, the present versions of the children illustrate the damages of this absence—most explicitly in the youngest, James. While the rest of the kids have established impressive careers of their own: medicine, psychiatry, education—James works at a Costco and collects his portion of the rent from the expensive Bay Area property left to the kids, upon the death of their father three years earlier.

Seeing glimpses of the tense, home-life origins juxtaposed with where the kids end up, ultimately, raises questions, for me, about what it means to parent. How do you go about applying the lessons you want your kids to learn but also build the relationships you want when consistency will never happen between kids?

I already see places where my concern for one differs with my concern for the other. In truth, the second time around makes me less concerned about things for which had concerned me exceedingly with the first child.

But, the change means a shift in parenting. The experiences will differ. Couple this difference with unique personality traits and two kids from the same parents will end in remarkably different spots. To me, the profundity of Ann Packer’s novel rests on this idea. Despite our best intentions and our deep reservoir of love for our children, those minor differences built up over the course of a decade or two will form or malform our kids in many ways.

I’m thankful for the way The Children’s Crusade provides such a sharp look at these family dynamics.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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