I met Ann Packer the way most of us did – through A Dive From Clausen’s Pier, which I loved so much I reread it immediately after I finished it.
And then I met Ann Packer for real in a yoga class in Palo Alto. To be honest, “met,” is a generous word, because in reality, I probably accosted her. I began by gushing that I had read her book three times, and that I was also a writer and wow, wasn’t it amazing that we were in the same yoga class? What I remember now is the look of fear in her eyes as she rolled up her mat and hoofed it out of there.
I was so embarrassed I never went back to that class again. But I have been reading her books throughout the years. And while reviewers never love her new work as much as her first book, I do.
Like many of her novels, which lack an aggressive plot, The Children’s Crusade is propelled forward by the fate of a house that was inherited by four siblings. The house was built in the 1950s, by Bill Blair, a Navy doctor who fought in the Korean War. He found respite near a California live oak, which he visited often and used as the subject of his painting. Eventually, he bought the property surrounding the tree in what would later become Silicon Valley.
Bill then married a woman named Penny. Together, they had four children before Penny realized she didn’t really like being a mother. Bill becomes a wonderful father and trusted pediatrician, while Penny becomes an artist who spends more time in a shed slash studio down the hill than with her family.
While the book seems quite pedestrian, I couldn’t put it down. The subtle tensions between the siblings and the push and pull between the generous father and selfish mother were compelling juxtapositions.
Penny is the evil villain of the story in many ways – the title “Children’s Crusade” comes from an idea the children had to lure their mother away from her artist’s studio and back into their family. And yet, she is also the hero for many of us, because of her absolute belief in what she deserves during a time when women weren’t allowed to want very much.
The children were fully drawn characters, and at times, I was in awe of the level of detail and personality that Packer infused into them. It is still hard for me to believe that somewhere, out in Silicon Valley, the Blair children don’t really exist.
The oldest Blair children have names that begin with “R,” which were drawn into the concrete of the house’s foundation. James, is the fourth child, and considered to be a mistake by Penny, even though he is the one most like her.
The central action of the story revolves around the rule that for the heirs to sell their house and cash in on the inflated property values of Silicon Valley, James has to speak to his mother. This is difficult as the two haven’t had a relationship in years because of something that happened when James was a child.
To read “The Children’s Crusade” is to become invested. You will have a favorite. You will take a side. And then you will change your mind as you hear another side of the story. But by that time it won’t matter. Because the Blair house will be your house, and you will be part of the family.
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