The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (Scribner, April 2015)
After being discharged from the Navy in 1954, Bill Blair gets in his car and drives south from San Francisco where he finds a lot with a might oak tree in Potola Valley, what is now known as Silicon Valley. In short order, Bill proposes to Penny Greenway, builds a substantial house and produces four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James within ten years. Bill is as dedicated to his family as he is to his career as a physician, but Penny is more wrestles and dissatisfied with her role as dutiful wife and mother, especially after the birth of James. Though she performs these roles well, she yearns for something else---to be an artist---and slowly disengages herself and distances herself from her family, first moving into a shed on their property and then to Taos at a time when women throughout the United States are testing and breaking away from these heretofore traditional roles. The narrative is effectively and beautifully laid out, alternating between sections describing the Blairs as the children were growing up, and the dynamics among the children in a group and as pairs, and sections told from the point of view of each adult child, their relationships with their siblings as adults, especially James who has just returned unexpectedly from Oregon, as well as the family each has created, families traditional and not so traditional, but each nonetheless influenced by their upbringing. These chapters take place about three years after Bill’s death, Penny still all but estranged from her children and focus on James’s return. James, who has wondered around the Northwest since he left college, is almost certain he is ready to embark on a permanent relationship, but is in need of one thing: money. Money that can be gotten if he can get his mother to agree to sell the house the four children own jointly with her, but that can only be sold if Penny and one child agree. As each child struggles with the effects James’s return has on each and where they would go from here if the house that anchored them was no longer heir’s---or even standing. Each character is nuanced and believable, first as a child, then a teen, young adult and adult and though children and their psychological and physical well-being is a resounding theme throughout the book, it is interesting that the one [living] character, Penny, still has the strongest hold on each, sometimes unconsciously, and is the one least seen. The social history of women from the mid-1950’s thought the sixties and seventies is subtly woven into this family history and will feel familiar to many readers who witnessed it firsthand. This family saga, much like those of Jane Smiley, has sentences and paragraphs that are so carefully written, readers will be left in awe and breathless.