Reviews: September/October 2015

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The Children’s Crusade
Ann Packer ’81
Scribner, $26.99
Reviewed by Alex Beam ’75

Alex Beam ’75 writes for the Boston Globe

There is a crack in the foundation.

That’s almost a spoiler clue for unraveling Ann Packer’s new novel. Packer plants the family patriarch, Dr. Bill Blair, smack in the center of an American dreamscape, a three-acre parcel he purchases in Portola Valley, California, to build a family home. It is 1954. Blair has just returned from service aboard hospital ships during the Korean War. We find him contemplating his lot, no pun intended, beneath a massive oak on the land he will soon buy: “Bill had grown up believing virtue was a ticket to contentment, but the war had exploded that notion, and he needed something to replace it.”

That something will be the family he raises with Penny Greenway, who becomes the mother of their children and, in time, an aspiring artist. Then Penny becomes a successful artist. What could be more perfect? But this is a novel, not a scrapbook, and the story is the creation and the partial dismantling of Bill Blair’s dream for the perfect home. Packer tells us early on that Bill and Penny want ever-so-slightly different things. Over a lifetime, those small differences unleash a destructive, entropic fury.

The Children’s Crusade is a quietly engrossing book, with no flashy writing and no characters tossing themselves off cliffs. The novel has a near-perfect pace that leads the reader into and out of the childhood of Bill’s four children, alternating the present (circa now) with the past of their growing up—the late 1970s in never-dull California. The four competitive siblings, two of whom are Dr. Blairs just like their father, consume most of the narrative oxygen. But Packer’s real story concerns imperfect parents—that would be all of us—and the imperfections they invariably visit upon their children. The cracks in the foundation, if you will, that can easily bring down a home.

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