The year is 1954. Bill Blair has just gotten out of the Navy where he served as a Doctor. Now, he’s on a joy ride to enjoy the countryside outside of San Francisco. Before he knows it he’s come across a large piece of land, over 3 acres. He uses all his savings and buys it with the idea of building a home and raising a family here, sometime in the future. You see, Bill doesn’t even have a girlfriend, yet. But that changes quickly when he meets and marries Penny, a young unassuming woman working in her uncle’s watch repair shop. This is where THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE, by Ann Packer, truly begins.
Ann Packer takes us through five decades of one family’s secrets and scars. Just when Penny and Bill should be beginning their happily-ever-after, we feel the darkness begin to divide them. Even before the birth of the first of four children. And, we find that maybe, just maybe, that last child was not meant to be…
Sibling rivalry has never been so filled with angst. It’s only when I read books such as this that I find myself glad to be an only child. Those of you who have brothers and sisters will understand the ups and downs and give and take of everyday life with siblings. It’s as if we are dipped inside this home filled with rife and turned upside down by a tornado, at times.
We watch as Penny begins to distance herself from Bill and her children. She calls herself an artist these days, and spends more and more time out in her “studio,” (shed, say Bill and the kids). In this “studio” she is creating some very unique pieces of art. More often than not, Penny escapes to the studio. Is it because Bill is pushing her in that direction? Or is it because she is frustrated and not feeling like mothering is enough for her?
The looming character in the story is the house. The house takes over in parts of the story. Especially toward the end when a decision must be made by the children: to sell or not to sell.
The second part of the story is actually told in the voices of the children, looking back. James, the malcontent, is the fourth child. He is trouble with a capital T. Did he ever feel loved by his parents? James is the only child who moves away from the family as an adult. But does not really grow up until the end of the story. I would have to say that by the time he was born, the tide had already turned with Bill and Penny. And he always felt it. Each child has a story to tell and their stories are unique.
This novel, told with Packer’s innate ability to nail the voices of her characters, is sure to be on every book club list for this year and years to come.
I read a review copy of THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Ann Packer. Thanks go out to Scribner.