Ann Packer’s debut novel, “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier,” featured a character burdened by family baggage. In that elegant and wise novel, the characters did a lot of psychological parsing.
In this new novel, her third, an adage kept surfacing for me: If the unexamined life is not worth living, then neither is the over-examined life. A bit of ruthless editing might have resulted in “The Children’s Crusade” being not just a very good novel, but a great one.
“The Children’s Crusade” is character-driven, the story of the Blair family in 10 sections, told alternately in third-person omniscient and first-person. The first-person narratives belong to the four siblings: Rebecca, a psychiatrist, the most mature and comprehending; Robert, an internist, the angriest; Ryan, a teacher, the most loving; and James, the troublemaker, the most interesting.
The novel is analytical in tone, shaped by the siblings trying to understand the mystifying calculus of their parents’ troubled marriage. When they are children, their attempts to entice their mother back into the family weave are heartbreaking.
Casting a long shadow is the idealized father, Bill Blair, who — when newly discharged from the Navy after the Korean War — purchased choice acreage in what would become Silicon Valley.
Bill chooses pediatrics as a specialty and dreams of having children. He is patient and measured, and also the measuring stick against which his children chart their self-worth.
Their mother, Penny, is a stay-at-home mom. Though she’s content early in her marriage, the unplanned pregnancy of James tips her balance. She begins to retreat.
Impatient, especially with superactive James, she often fails the culture’s and the family’s domestic expectations.
First in a kitchen pantry and later in a shed-turned-studio near the house, Penny is increasingly consumed by her art. Her resentful children trivialize it. But then so does Packer, diminishing it as mere craft. In fact, for such a psychologically sophisticated novel, the character of Penny is a bit of a caricature.
As the novel opens, the father has been dead three years. The adult children have all settled near their childhood home with the exception of James, who dropped out of college seven months short of a degree and shows up intermittently on his home turf.
At 38, he lives in Eugene, Ore., works at Costco and initially seems to want to resume his childhood role of kicking up trouble. But what he really wants is to sell the childhood home, currently rented to an affluent family for several thousand dollars a month.
Bill’s will stipulated that it would take the consent of Penny and at least one of the children for the home and land to be sold. James wants to sell because he’s in love and wants to bankroll a home of his own. In typical James fashion, however, the love affair is illicit.
James met the married Celia through an “intentional community” he joined in Eugene. To the members of this collective, James is seen as handy, helpful and hardworking, very different from how he is viewed by his biological family.
The last sections of this novel are worth the price of purchase, focused on how James’ desire to sell the family homestead jump-starts the characters’ development and growth. The renegade mother, Penny, and the prodigal son, James, propel the novel to a heart-tugging ending.
This smart, if imperfect, novel explores what makes a family jell or fall apart, and how people choose other, more “intentional,” communities.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer living in Topeka.
The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer (432 pages; Scribner; $26.99. Available April 7)