Reviewing The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
I still remember when my mom gave me Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, for two reasons. One: I could not put it down and suffered a night without sleep, followed by a day of dark circles under eyes and stumbling. Two: it made me think, a lot, both while I was reading and after. I still find myself bringing up that book, and the questions that it asked even though I read it over 10 years ago. It is the classic girl and boy are high school sweethearts, girl starts to feel suffocated by her small town life and right before she goes to leave boy and town, boy is paralyzed in a freak accident, and girl must decide if she stays for him or leaves for herself. Ann Packer is a brilliant writer who evokes great emotion, and when I heard that she was releasing a new book, The Children’s Crusade, I knew I had to have another sleepless night with her words.
The Children’s Crusade takes readers to San Francisco starting in the 1950s and carrying us through today, all through the eyes of one family, the Blair’s. Packer’s stories often focus on complicated family relationships, and we benefit from her comfort in the genre, as this book is full of the tension and love of families, without falling into the overdramatic tropes of some less experienced writers. Dr. Bill Blair is a Midwestern transplant to the Bay Area in the early 1950s, where he is hoping to create a new life for himself after all that he saw working as a doctor in the war. When he meets Penny, he finds his opportunity to create the family that he has always wanted, but, of course, things never work as planned. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of each of the now-adult Blair children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James, all centered around their decision whether or not to sell the family home and land a few years after their father’s death.
Packer moves back and forth in time, leaving breadcrumbs for the reader to know what will be coming next, wondering what explanations will exist for all of their strife. As with many families, the Blairs project a perfect All-American family to the world, until things start to crack under the weight of Penny’s unhappiness with her role as a wife and mother, James’ feeling of disillusionment, and Bill’s inability to be everything for all of his children, who are all so very different from each other. As a reader, you become invested in this family, and I found myself unable to put down the book, again wondering what decisions the family would make, good or bad, just like with Packer’s other stories. She possesses a gift for making the reader truly care about her characters in a way that few can.
This is a book for anyone who loves to read complicated family stories or character driven stories, especially as Packer manages to make all of her characters, even the house, multi-layered and quite human. For those who prefer audiobooks, there is the added bonus of multiple narrators for each of the chapters told in different family member perspectives, and it is very well read (yes, I both read the eBook and listened to the audiobook, but how else was I going to constantly know what was going on in the story?!?). Becoming part of the Blair family, even for a short while, was a gift from Packer, and one that I will not soon forget.
Meghan Volchko is a Collection Development Specialist at OverDrive, and she should not pull all-nighters any more like she did in college.