'The Children's Crusade' explores the dynamics of a California family with an unhappy mother

Ann Packer's gift for parsing complicated families all come to the fore in her latest novel.

The Children’s Crusade By Ann Packer Scribner 448 pp.

There’s an old Southern saying that “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Ann Packer explores the fraught family dynamics behind that truism in her rueful, ambling new novel, The Children’s Crusade.

Penny Blair, California mom of four, really, truly is not happy. Her husband Bill, a gentle, older pediatrician whose watchword is “Children deserve care,” is frankly baffled by his wife’s discontent. They have a lovely home in what will eventually become Silicon Valley and four healthy children. What more could she possibly want? In this case, the answer is one that is culturally unacceptable: Penny wants less: fewer responsibilities, fewer demands on her time – in fact, fewer children.

Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James circle their mom warily, at one point deciding to go on a quest to try to make her happy. (James not getting an “R” name is just the first indication he’s been branded as the family misfit – something not lost on the youngest Blair.)

“Rebecca liked it instantly. It had just the kind of purposeful sound she loved, the real, official sound of a job, instead of soft, ill-formed half-intention that so often led nowhere,” Packer writes about the second Blair and only girl.

Naturally, of course, the Blair crusade falls into the latter category, and after a sincere, well-intentioned bout of brainstorming, this children’s crusade was abandoned. While as inevitably doomed as its 1212 namesake, at least these children make it out, scarred but alive. Penny, meanwhile, begins a slow withdrawal from the family, spending more and more time in her artist’s studio in the backyard before she eventually moves out there.

The bulk of the novel’s plot revolves around the question of what to do about the family home: Bill has died and the family has to decide what to do with their now incredibly valuable piece of Silicon Valley land, causing the children, even drifter James, to come together for the first time in years.

At this point, the damage mid-century moms inflicted on their offspring by not finding fulfillment in cookie-baking and dusting has become almost as cliché in literature as old Southern sayings.

“ ‘We never get over it,’ she said to me during one of our first sessions together,” Rebecca says of her therapist. “ ‘What’s that?’ I said, and she said, ‘Having started out as children.’ ”

But Packer (“The Dive From Clausen’s Pier”) has made complicated families her specialty, and her engaging writing, sense of place, and above all, the third Blair child, make “The Children’s Crusade” a journey worth taking.

Ryan Blair has an incredible sweetness and empathy that would make him seem the least able to handle the vagaries of life. Instead, bossy Robert and physically imposing James are the ones still reeling from their frankly conventional upbringing – Robert, because is sure he will never measure up to his father, and James, because he bore the brunt of their mother’s discontent in inventive and damaging ways.

Penny isn’t quite the villain of the piece, but Bill is so saintly and patient that there really isn’t any other role for her to occupy. (“My father, that holy ghost, intruded yet again,” Robert thinks about Bill at one point.)

Packer is a sure-handed writer. While "The Children's Crusade" meanders on its way, Ryan Blair and his siblings are worth spending time with. And there are worse ways to live one's life than with the gentle certainty that “Children deserve care.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.