Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ann Packer’s ‘The Children’s Crusade’ is a fast read that is not without its charms

Photo by Lisa Noble

Itwas pure coincidence that I read Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade in the same week that I read A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (reviewed in this blog on 6/22). The similarities are striking although, in my view, Tyler’s is the better book.

In each novel, a man falls in love with a piece of property and lives on it the rest of his life. In Blue Thread, Junior, a contractor, builds his dream house for clients and then engineers their moving out and selling it to him. In The Children’s Crusade, Bill Blair, a Navy physician, manages to get a weekend pass and, north of San Francisco, finds a beautiful piece of land which he buys “on a whim,” and on which he later builds a house. In both novels, the house looms large in the family’s history and in the memories of the children raised in it.

There’s more. In both novels, there is the irresponsible, difficult child who, as an adult, returns home to wreak more havoc. In Blue Thread, it
is Denny who seems unable (or unwilling) to hold a job, stay in a relationship, or meet his responsibilities. In The Children’s Crusade, it is James who, likewise, floats from job to job, from one place to another, and from one woman to the next, without regard for anyone other than himself.

But there are profound differences as well. Tyler is interested in the difference between received family history and actual events. Packer’s concern is whether childhood experiences positively or negatively shape the adult, or whether children are born with the qualities and personalities that they carry into adulthood.

The Children’s Crusade is the story of Dr. Bill Blair, a kind and deeply loved pediatrician, who takes to fatherhood easily. His wife, Penny, is self-absorbed, overwhelmed by the demands of her four children, deeply neglectful of them and unhappy with her life. The title of the book comes from the “crusade” of the four Blair children to jointly find something that will make their mother happy and, more importantly, make her want to be with them.

It’s a futile effort. The first three children are Robert (who becomes a physician like his father but an insecure, troubled one); Rebecca (who becomes a psychiatrist); and Ryan, the most sensitive and loving of the three who becomes a caring teacher at the same private school he attended as a child. The fourth (unplanned-for) child is James who is uncontrollable, destructive, and given to violent tantrums.

Penny cannot (or will not) deal with him and, instead, slowly withdraws from the family:

…Penny is, at least in Penny’s eyes, an emerging artist. She has needs. More and more needs. And anything Penny needs requires sacrifices from her alleged loved ones. (Janet Maslin, The New York Times, 4/15/15)

Initially, she takes over a mudroom as her craft room and begins to make small collages from “found” objects. From there, she moves to a shed on the property so that her husband and children must come and knock on the door to see her. The shed is enlarged to include a bathroom and electricity. She adds a day bed which soon becomes a night bed. She takes trips to Taos and eventually moves there to pursue her art career, leaving husband and children behind.

Upon his death, Dr. Blair leaves the house which they all love (and which is now worth millions) to a trust, providing that it cannot be sold without the approval of Penny and at least one of the children. This triggers the central conflict of the novel.

The narrative moves back and forth in time, exploring each child’s memories of his earliest years. A chapter is devoted to each, comparing and contrasting their young and adult selves. Penny is largely revealed through her physical and psychological absence and its effect on each of the siblings.

Ironically, it is James, the difficult child who had less maternal attention than the others, who is most like his mother. Toward the end of the novel, she insists on meeting with him for the first time in many years. Her parting words, as he leaves her studio:

She said, “Isn’t that what we have in common, you and I?
That we ruin things?”

The Children’s Crusade is not entirely satisfactory. The characters often seem one-dimensional: the saintly father, the “responsible” child, the “sensitive” child, the “bad seed,” the entirely selfish mother.

James, the hellion, is the most fully realized and the one who most exemplifies the theory that children are born with their personalities already imbedded. He is violent, hurtful, destructive from his earliest days and there is no real explanation of why: he just is. His psychiatrist sister, Rebecca, thinks his behavior – as a child and as an adult – is due to “maternal deprivation.” But James gets plenty of attention and loving care from his father and his older siblings and this doesn’t seem to change his behavior an iota. Rather, the adult James has stored up and constantly stews over all the imagined wrongs visited upon him by his siblings as well as his parents.

Penny is the most elusive character. She is painted as wholly selfish. We get her external reactions to the children, her annoyance, her impatience. We are told she wants solitude to make her art. But we get little of her interior life – how she feels about her behavior. Is she really oblivious to its effect? Does she care? Many writers have addressed the conflict between the traditional role of women versus their personal and professional needs. Here, Penny seems to merely use the Second Wave of Feminism as an excuse to do what she wants to do without much analysis or consideration. In my view, the novel would have been richer if there had been more internal conflict.

The Children’s Crusade is, however, a fast read and not without its charms (Bill Blair meets Penny, for example, while she is working at Reliable Clocks and Watches – “reliable” being the very last word that comes to mind in describing her). You won’t be tempted to put it down before you’re done but, nonetheless, it is probably not a book that will wake you in the night, insisting that you remember and savor its best parts.

Ann Packer is the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which received the Kate Chopin Literary Award, Songs Without Words, Swim Back to Me, and The Children’s Crusade. A native Californian, she attended Yale and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Michener-Copernicus Society, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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