And so I hope Man Booker Prize judges will take a good look at Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, a tour de force about family life widely dismissed by critics as a family saga. (Janet Maslin at the New York Times called it “shapeless” and Maureen Corrigan at NPR used the word “corny.” The novelist Valerie Sayers at the Washington Post recognizes its importance and praises its artistic structure.)
When Jonathan Franzen does it, it’s art; when Packer does it, it’s a family saga. Go figure. In this brilliant novel about five decades in the lives of the Blair family, Packer asks tough questions about the American family: is the “bad mother” responsible for all her children’s woes? Is she even necessary when her husband is the perfect parent?
Penny Blair is a background character, and yet at the center of the Blairs’ lives. Her four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James, muse endlessly about her behavior years later from their adult perspective. (About half of the book consists of fascinating scenes of their lives growing up; the rest is told from their compelling points of view as adults.) The first three were planned: Penny told Bill before their marriage that she wanted only three children. The fourth child was a mistake, and, before Roe v. Wade, Penny could not have an abortion. Penny is so exhausted by the truly uncontrollable James that she opts out of the family and moves into the shed she converts into a studio.
When her daughter, Rebecca, a child psychologist, looks back, she realizes, “Penny was truly beleaguered–a woman not cut out for the job of raising four children.”
Penny does become a successful artist, but only the two middle children, Rebeca and Ryan, can forgive her.
Bill, a saintly pediatrician, responds to every crisis with caring questions and psychoanalytical language. On Thanksgiving at Penny’s parents’ house, James laughs over the mass suicide at Jonestown and says his father looks like Jim Jones and should start Billtown. Bill asks what would happen in Billtown.
Billtown, USA!” [James] cried for good measure. He climbed onto one of the chairs and shouted, “Subjects! Welcome to Jamestown!”
“James,” Penny cried, “get down from there this instant! Why are we all standing here? Dad, this will wear you out. James, I mean it now.”
“Come down, son,” Bill said, and he held out a hand for James.
Penny thinks James could use some discipline (and so do I), and her elderly parents are upset by his hyperactivity. But Bill is always understanding. After Robert complains about one of James’ antics (he lies down in the doorway of Robert’s room and refuses to move), Bill lets him stay. He tells Robert, “Children deserve care.” Robert privately wonders if he isn’t a child who deserves care, too.
Penny wonders if she, too, doesn’t deserve care.
As an adult, only the happily married Ryan, who becomes a teacher at the progressive day school he attended (the others went to public school), takes after Bill in his complete attention and understanding of children. Rebecca is a child psychiatrist, but doesn’t have children; Robert is an unhappy, angry doctor with a wife and children; and James is an angry, unemployable man who moves from place to place.
The Blairs do not stray far from their family house in California. Robert and Rebecca live nearby, and Ryan lives in the shed on the property. James is the only one who has left California. He returns from Eugene, Oregon, to visit his siblings becuase he is going over to “the dark side” (Penny) and wants to sell the house. Penny has long wanted to sell the house so she can afford to buy a house in Taos, where she has been a successful artist for 20 years.
During their childhood, concerned that Penny wanted to stay home when the children went out with Bill, Rebecca starts a “children’s crusade” to figure out what Penny would like to do with them.
I do think Packer has a soft spot for Penny. The children love Bill, who needs to keep them close even as adults, but is it Penny or James who ruins the family? (Or even Bill?)
All parents make mistakes.
This is a great American novel, the best I’ve read this year.