STARRED REVIEW
April 2015

Quiet wisdom on family life

By Ann Packer
Review by
Pity the quiet novel about family life. In an era when novelists are taught to write killer openings and the line between literary and genre fiction is increasingly blurred, it seems as if there’s no room for a contemplative novel that finds drama in quiet moments. Fortunately, such books are still being published, and one of the better examples is The Children’s Crusade, the new novel by Ann Packer (The Dive from Clausen’s Pier).
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Pity the quiet novel about family life. In an era when novelists are taught to write killer openings and the line between literary and genre fiction is increasingly blurred, it seems as if there’s no room for a contemplative novel that finds drama in quiet moments. Fortunately, such books are still being published, and one of the better examples is The Children’s Crusade, the new novel by Ann Packer (The Dive from Clausen’s Pier).

The story begins in the 1950s, when Michigan native Bill Blair completes a residency in pediatrics and buys 3.1 acres of undeveloped land in what will eventually be known as Silicon Valley. He marries Penny Greenway, who, at first, takes great pride in her role as a housewife. But well before their four children are adults, Penny has converted the shed on the property into an art studio and withdrawn from the rest of the family. When 38-year-old James, the youngest child, returns to California in 2006 from his current home in Eugene, Oregon, he tells his older siblings—Robert, a physician; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a teacher—all of whom still live on or near the homestead, that he needs money and wants to sell the house. The novel alternates between past and present and among each sibling’s perspective to create a compelling portrait of complicated family relationships.

Packer’s strength is her ability to see meaning in small gestures, to recognize that “Are you okay?” is, in many marriages, a loaded question. Her descriptions are beautiful; she imagines the sky as being the color of a glass of water into which one has dipped a calligraphy pen. Some scenes go on too long, but the book is always perceptive about love and relationships and treats its nuanced characters with sympathy. When Robert’s boy Sammy is born, Bill gives his son advice: “Enjoy him.” The Children’s Crusade is about, among other topics, whether we enjoy our children, even when they grow up into adults whose company we might not otherwise accept. That’s the kind of insight you get in a quiet novel.

Michael Magras is a writer living in southern Maine and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.


This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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