Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Review: "The Children's Crusade" by Ann Packer

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"Children deserve care."

So is the motto of Bay Area pediatrician Bill Blair. When he finished serving in the Korean War, he left his Michigan home and decided to pursue a degree in pediatric medicine in San Francisco. While on a leisurely drive into the Portola Valley one day, he came upon three acres of wooded land which he was so taken by, he purchased it on a whim. Of course, he had no money to actually build on the land, so he just visited it from time to time.

When he meets shy Penny Greenway, he finds underneath her calm demeanor a reservoir of passion and yearning, and they plan a life together, one in which they will build a house on Bill's land and raise three children. And although the house works out as planned, they wind up having four children, which upsets Penny more than she's willing to let on, and ultimately, being a wife and mother isn't enough to satisfy her, and she seeks the opportunity to become an artist, without much worry about what that might do to her family.

Years later, Bill and Penny's children are grown, with the three oldest still living near their childhood home, while the youngest, James, the hyperactive "problem child," has never settled down. Yet James' return to his hometown unsettles the stable lives of his siblings—Robert, a doctor like their father; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a schoolteacher—and unearths old resentments among each of them, and raises questions about the state of their parents' relationship when they were growing up. James is still the one no one can contain or control, he is still the one easily dissatisfied and mercurial, yet he desperately wants to belong, whether among his siblings or in the community where he lives.

Ann Packer's The Children's Crusade is a tremendously well-written, intriguing, and emotional look at family dynamics, and how the decisions adults make while parenting have the potential to cause ripples in their children's lives for years to come. It's also a story of regrets, unfulfilled wishes, fears, things unsaid, and both the power and peril of memory.

"I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that's what memory is: the replaying of filmstrip that's slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I'll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added."

The book shifts between present day, looking at each of the adult children, and key moments in their childhood and Bill and Penny's marriage. Packer does a great job developing her characters and drawing you into their lives. The majority of the characters aren't completely likeable, but you feel for them, and you want to know what happens to them even after the book has ended.

Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier remains a book that has stuck with me years after I read it, and I've always been a fan of her writing. While The Children's Crusade moves slower than that book, it's still a rich, complex story that I enjoyed tremendously.

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