REVIEW: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE, BY ANN PACKER

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Spanning more than fifty years, The Children’s Crusade: A Novel is the story of a family.

It began with Bill Blair and his dreams for the land he bought in Portola Valley, in 1954. He met a woman named Penny. They married, and together they produced four children and built up their home. He became a pediatrician and his work became primary for him.

The dynamics of the family begin to show on one day when the four children were young; we witness Penny unraveling as she prepares for a party. There is nothing happy about Penny, and the sense of doom that hovers for the next few years will tell us more about her. She complains constantly about Bill not being there to “help.”

Meanwhile, the children are already assuming their roles, with Robert, as the eldest, and the one who sees himself as the leader. Rebecca, a little younger, is very maternal with the younger siblings, Ryan and James. At age three, we can already sense that James is out of control, and that his mother is constantly frustrated with him.

Fast forward over the years: in adulthood, Robert and Rebecca are both doctors, but Rebecca’s choice to become a psychiatrist is her way of extending the role she assumed in the family. Ryan is a teacher and very artistic. And James seems to be a lost soul.

Forward and backward we go, filling in the blanks of what led them all to the people they became. The troubles, the rivalries, and how Penny distanced herself from the family early on to pursue her “art.” Bill reveals his role as the nurturing parent and counsels the children through some of their troubles.

Individual chapters are devoted to each one’s perspective, and as we see each character from all sides, we come to understand them a lot more.

What events will thoroughly test the family bonds? How will the siblings solve some of their most crucial issues? How will the house become the centerpiece for their bonds, and what will ultimately happen to it? How will James’s visit with his mother in Taos, NM, relieve him of an old grievance?

The “crusade” that the children dreamed up to help their mother connect to them was never carried out, but it seemed like a recurring theme, in that later on, they all mentioned how their father had a crusade of his own. Children were his life: his own children, and those he helped heal as a doctor.

The writing style was interesting, in that we got to see them all as children…and then grown, and saw how they resolved some of their issues. Sometimes I got a little bogged down, but I enjoyed it overall. Recommended for those who enjoy family sagas, and don’t mind family dysfunction. 4.0 stars.

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