“The Children’s Crusade” by Ann Packer is a story about an era and a place told through the history of one American family and the children’s complex relationships with each other and their parents. The Blairs’ life is mostly told from the children’s point of view while growing up with parents who were not really suited for each other.
The story begins in 1954 and follows this family for five decades through the death of Bill Blair. When the novel begins, Bill Blair, a returning Korean War veteran and a young physician with a specialty in pediatrics, comes upon three acres of land in Portola Valley just outside San Francisco which includes what Bill thinks is the most beautiful live oak tree he had ever seen.
Perhaps this tree is a symbol of the beginning of a family tree. He meets and marries Penny Greenway and over the next decade they have four children.
Penny, a typical housewife of that era, also considers herself an artist. But she feels restless in her role as a parent. She is happiest when she is working with her many arts and crafts projects. Art seems to be her passion, not her children.
When she was first married, Bill filled her soul completely. Now he is so involved with the four children and his practice that she feels left out. Penny retreats more and more to her studio and it becomes a home for her, a place away from her children and her husband and her responsibilities as a mother.
The story is told from the perspective of each of the four children. Their father, Bill, is always expecting the best from them. All four admire him and do not want to disappoint him. Yet they are very different in nature.
Rebecca, the only daughter, who becomes a psychiatrist when she grows up, says, “Temperament dictates how parents are with them [their children]. The baby influences the parent who influences the baby who influences the parent. No two siblings have the same parents.”
She also hopes for an unusual family outing and calls it a “crusade” to get their mother back with them emotionally. The oldest three Blair children have grown up, married, and found respectable jobs. But the youngest, James, a troublemaker as a child, is still causing distress.
After Bill dies and Penny moves to Taos, James shows up and suggests that they sell the family home. James has moved away in every sense of the word. But now he is home and wants to sell those three acres of land purchased by their father back in 1954. The question is whether the older three siblings will be able to part with this property that represents their bonds. The oldest three still live very close, attached to where they grew up.
“The Children’s Crusade” is a complex novel about family dynamics and sibling relationships.