Her previous novels have examined the effects of tragedy in the forms of suicide, accident and loss; in her most recent work, now in paperback, Ann Packer tackles childhood suffering and how we carry it with us into adulthood.
“The Children’s Crusade” takes its name from a doomed campaign during the 13th century.
Part myth, part oral tradition and part historical fact, the Children’s Crusade was the disastrous attempt of thousands of young Christians to convert the Holy Land peacefully, and ended in death and slavery.
Unsurprisingly, much of the efforts of the children in “The Children’s Crusade” are futile. It is Packer’s uncanny ability to defend those we initially blame and to critique those who seem faultless that makes this novel so remarkable.
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There are four children, three boys and a girl, born to Bill Blair and his artistically inclined wife, Penny Greenway. Bill and Penny are opposites who attract.
Bill is eternally patient and reliable, a doctor who returned from war and on a whim purchased some cheap land that eventually becomes Silicon Valley. Penny is unsure of herself, and much of the novel follows her attempts to carve out her own identity and her family’s attempts to keep her in their lives as she drifts further and further away, spending evenings in what she calls her studio and her children call her shed.
Each child represents a different psyche. Robert is competitive and responsible, Rebecca is arguably the smartest, Ryan has an almost problematically big heart, and the last child — James — is best described as different.
It is made almost too clear to the reader that James is different; Bill and Penny always fantasized about having three children, and could not think up another “R” name for James. He and his mother provide most of the friction in the novel, hurling their own forms of chaos into a family led by an unflappable, logical doctor.
Yet they bring a certain awareness that the rest of the family sometimes lacks. After Ryan goes through relationship trouble at school, the young James yells “Everyone does this!” When his siblings ask what he means, assuming he is having a tantrum, he quietly responds, “Breaks up.” Even when seemingly unstable, he is prescient.
Packer examines the Blair family from every imaginable angle; she switches from third to first person, from character to character, and drifts back and forth in time. Initially, this makes the novel seem meandering; however, it is an effective stylistic decision. Every time the reader has selected a hero or an adversary — villain is too strong a word for any character in this novel — Packer’s deft writing complicates things yet again, and the reader must reexamine.
The Blair family seems to fold into one another like origami, until they share one brain and one heart, each contributing unique worldviews that wrestle ad infinitum. The theme of individuals composing a whole is alluded to strikingly and consistently throughout the novel in the form of narratives, medical jargon and some Blair family mottos.
By describing these characters as troubled children and then as troubled adults, Packer allows herself to create a fuller picture and begs the question: Were these people’s middle age woes set in stone by the end of their childhood? Can childhood anxieties and suffering ever be resolved?
“Isn’t that what we have in common, you and I?” One Blair says to another, late in the book. “That we ruin things?” Packer’s slow but deliberate novel provides fully developed characters, and rewards readers for caring.
Ian Swalwell is an intern from the University of Missouri-KansasCity’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program.
“The Children’s Crusade,” by Ann Packer (448 pages, Scribner)