Ann Packer set out to tell the story of a family, the Blair family, when she wrote “The Children’s Crusade” and tell the story she did. In thinking of an analogy for this family, for any family really, it’s easy to think of a spider’s web. Some of the strands are strong and unbreaking, some of the strands are weak and fickle… but through it all everything is so tightly woven that it is hard to imagine the entire thing existing with just one thing missing.
The family is colored throughout all the decades the story follows, the 1950s to the relative present day, by patriarch Bill Blair’s services as a doctor during the Korean War. Seeing humanity at what really is its worst, he comes home with a new focus of children. Pediatrics and his own four children become really all that matter to him in the world. In children, Bill sees healing and hope and innocence.
His wife, Penny, doesn’t feel quite the same. She’s got more of an adult-centered, and often self-centered, focus in the world. It’s easy to get the idea that she becomes a mother, four times over, because that is simply what is done in the 1950s and 1960s. It is clear that she would rather be an artist and the center of attention at fancy parties than she would be a soccer mom and the center of attention at PTA meetings. All too natural is that Bill and Penny never really see eye to eye but that they stay married because that is just what was done.
The four Blair children; Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James, are the ones caught in the middle who end up seeing their lives as a sort of crusade – a crusade explicitly to make their mother happy, which they never really do, and a crusade implicitly to make their father proud of them, which they could do without really trying. This complicated balance affects them in very different ways.
Robert becomes the ultimate overachiever to whom nothing is ever just right unless it follows the exact direction he decided it should go long ago. He has trouble accepting that life simply does not work that way throughout the story.
Rebecca, as the only girl, ends up as a surrogate mother, and even wife, in the family and her carefully hidden resentment of that carries her through to her forties when she finally allows herself to marry a man nearly old enough to be her father but with whom she will never have children.
Ryan is the sensitive soul, and there really is one in every family. He is the one his mother clearly likes best because he inherited her artistic, subjective nature rather than his father’s objective, fact based nature. He is almost too passionate about everything and finds himself carried away as he tries hardest to hang on to the family everyone else knows was broken.
James is the odd man out for more reasons that just that he wasn’t given an R-name, something that haunts him continually. Growing up with the idea that his mother wishes he didn’t exist and that he can never live up to Robert and Rebecca in his father’s eyes, he drifts around the world and eventually finds, after much struggle, a substitute family who accepts him for what he is not who he could be.
The children’s crusade doesn’t really work. It could never really work. Some things just are as they are. The value of this novel lies in the intricate and varied personalities that Packer gave each character. The “family” is the focus but the Blairs are the story – the story you want to read.
“The Children’s Crusade” is available for purchase now.
(I received a copy of “The Children’s Crusade” via NetGalley in exchange for an original & honest review. My review is posted at NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.)