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The Children's Crusade: A Novel Hardcover – April 7, 2015

3.5 out of 5 stars 252 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of April 2015: Have you ever come across a family with secrets? One that, no matter how educated, well-heeled, and essentially decent, still manages to miss connections, hurt each other and harbor ancient slights for what seems like forever? For you, reading Ann Packer’s new novel may bring you comfort if not joy. (If you’ve never known or been that kind of family. . .well, then you’re either a saint or a liar). Packer lays out the story of the Blair family, father/doctor Bill, his wife Penny and their four children, the last of whom, James (it is obvious from the beginning, if only because he’s the sole sibling with a non-R name) was unexpected, a mistake. Beginning in northern California in 1954 – “long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley” – Packer takes us through five decades in the lives of the Blair family via the voices of its members; but if Robert, Ryan, Rebecca and James are the storytellers here, it is their mother Penny who is the heart of the book. Married to a man who’s almost too perfect to be true, Penny is a would-be artist who chafed at the traditional role society had assigned her and who must, ultimately, make choices on her own behalf. In vigilant detail, Packer chronicles the seemingly tiny ways that personal needs and memories from childhood make us the people we can’t help but be for the rest of our lives. – Sara Nelson

Guest Review of The Children's Crusade
By Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert

Photo credit: Deborah Donenfeld

Ann Packer

Photo credit: Elena Seibert

Kate Walbert is the author of A Short History of Women, chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2009 and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Our Kind, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2004, The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the 2002 Connecticut Book Award in Fiction in 2002, and Where She Went, a collection of linked stories and a New York Times Notable Book. Her forthcoming novel, The Sunken Cathedral, will be published by Scribner in June, 2015.

One of the many reasons I’m wild about Ann Packer’s intricate and dazzling tour-de-force of a new novel, The Children’s Crusade, is because in Penny Blair she’s created one of the most complicated, infuriating, intelligent, unlikeable/likeable and ultimately true female characters I’ve ever read. But then again, this is Ann Packer, a writer whose generosity of spirit and enormous talent infuses every small detail with a kind of luminous, shiny quality and wonder; a writer who somehow, as if by magic, imbues her characters with a level of complexity that rings so true you would swear you had met them before, in real life, so that finishing The Children’s Crusade feels like you’ve just left a family reunion with one of the most fascinating clans you’ll ever meet.

The novel opens with Penny’s soon-to-be-husband Bill Blair, newly returned from Korea and on a carefree, convertible drive through the northern California countryside. Bill soon discovers a majestic California live oak that will root him to the landscape forever. (And that oak! My vote is for The Children’s Crusade to get cover of the year, the image of the oak’s gnarly limbs entwining the title, nay, the word children, a perfect rendering of Packer’s brilliant metaphor.) It is the 1950s. Bill is back from the war eager to turn his attention to building a career and settling down, and Penny, whom he meets and marries in quick succession soon after, dreams of her own escape and fulfillment —“for Penny, it seemed to her that the formlessness of her life until now had been a kind of prepayment for the many perfections of her husband …”. (Full disclosure: I immediately wanted to share this novel with my mother.)

But Packer only momentarily lingers in this 1950s haze before fast-forwarding to the messy morning after: Penny in a hot kitchen shooing her four young children, the three R’s—Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan—as well as the baby, the mistake, James, out the door as she furiously prepares for the annual Blair family party. One senses she’d rather chew glass. It’s stifling; she’s burned the cookies; the children are buzzing about like gnats. Soon Bill, now a salt-of-the-earth pediatrician whose goodness casts an increasingly dark shadow over Penny’s tricky contours, will ramble up to cool off the atmosphere, but not before it’s clear that something is terribly wrong in the Blair household, and the children will suffer the consequences.

The Children’s Crusade is the kind of book you can’t put down, the kind of book you neglect your own small, domestic and professional fires to race back to again and again. The story reads like a psychological thriller without the blood and gore, the damage more insidious and real and far reaching. Packer, true to form, creates the perfect compelling structure for the book: chapters chronicling Penny Blair’s messy evolution from housewife to artist alternate with first-person accounts from her now grown children of their own lives and marriages, and the ways in which the Blair family dance continues. The result is an epic tale as far reaching as the California horizon, a novel that portrays all the tragedies, and joys, of a real American family of the late 20th century.


“In The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer flawlessly executes the most daring, difficult and exhilarating feat in the novelist's repertoire: to re-create the history of an era and a place through the history of one family, finding intimacy in the sweep of time and import in the nuance of everyday life, pulling it off with mastery, authority and all the passionate artistry that lovers of her work have come to expect.” (Michael Chabon, author of Telegraph Avenue)

“Do our childhood experiences determine our destinies? In shimmering prose and with exceptional wisdom, Ann Packer examines the life of a California family, laying bare the relationships between brother and sister, parent and child, while at the same time revealing the ways in which the past casts both shadow and light on the present. The Children’s Crusade is a provocative, dazzling novel from a world-class fiction writer.” (Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train)

"The Children's Crusade is an extraordinary tale of a physician, his wife and their four children. Set in Northern California, it is a coming-of-age tale of family as well as an American pastoral; the language is beautiful, painterly, even as it shows us how much of our adult identity has been fully formed in childhood. Ann Packer’s eye for detail, her genius at evoking an era with such faithfulness, and her mastery of story make us identify with and deeply care for her characters. This is a beautiful novel that will stay with me.” (Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone)

Told in the most elegant prose... extraordinarily compassionate... A masterful portrait of indelible family bonds. (Joanne Wilkinson Booklist (starred review))

“Well-crafted… Packer is anaccomplished storyteller whose characters are as real as you might find aroundyour dinner table. Readers will be taken with this vibrant novel.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Packer is an expert at complicated relationships… Beautifully precise… When you read Packer, you'll know you're in the hands of a writer who knows what she's doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.” (Kirkus (starred review))

“A tour de force family drama… An engrossing saga… Packer brilliantly constructs the siblings’ narratives with both an appealing lightness and an arresting gravitas… Packer’s golden touch makes us care deeply for this memorable tribe.” (Lisa Shea Elle)

“An artful portrait of a California family.” (Elissa Schappell Vanity Fair)

"A flawless, compassionate portrayal... literary fiction at its finest." (Donna Bettencourt Library Journal (starred review))

"Tender, absorbing... Packer has great compassion for her characters, with their ancient injuries, their blundering desires. The way she tangles their perspectives perfectly, painfully captures the tumult of selves within a family. “ (Catherine Newman MORE)

"An absorbing novel which celebrates family even as it catalogs its damages." (People Magazine (Book of the Week))

“Packer is an expert American realist at every level, from the interior monologue to the bird’s-eye view.” (Boris Kachka Vulture.com)

"First-rate storytelling... Few writers are as emotionally astute at conveying subtle family ties as Packer." (Jane Ciabattari BBC.com)

"A more ambitious work that succeeds beautifully. The beauty comes from the rich characterizations that make each of the Blairs spring to life. We do not like them all equally, but ultimately we come to know them equally... Packer’s dissection of domestic life reminds me of her elders in the field Anne Tyler and Louise Erdrich. But I’ve rarely read a novel so astute about the jumble of love and respect, rivalry and envy, empathy and scorn that makes up family dynamics. Packer is also a superb storyteller. “The Children’s Crusade” is as much plot-driven as character-driven. From its opening pages, the book seduces us into a world far from the present era, glides through ensuing decades, and finally drops us off in the 21st century." (Dan Cryer San Francisco Chronicle)

"Psychologically acute... provocative... Packer shows how unhappiness and happiness, selfishness and kindness, ricochet in complicated ways through relationships. This is a novel with something to teach about forgiving the people we love." (Marion Winik Newsday)

"As the details accumulate, as each character’s story builds, Packer’s writing gains depth and power. By the end, all the separate threads weave a complex, textured tapestry. What a gift to the reader, who will certainly recognize and identify with the novel’s universal themes of those knotted ties that bind, the varied meanings of home, and, in particular, the many ways the child is father to the man." (Mameve Medwed The Boston Globe)

"Graceful, poignant... With her warm, nuanced portrayal of a family and its foibles, Packer delivers." (Hannah Sampson Miami Herald)

"Packer's portrayal of one family's breakdown is tragic and utterly engrossing." ("O," The Oprah Magazine)

"Packer has made complicated families her specialty... engaging writing, sense of place... The Children's Crusade [is] a journey worth taking." (Yvonne Zipp The Christian Science Monitor)

"Absorbing... the novel spreads its branches widely... fully formed heartbreaking portrayals." (Martha T. Moore USA TODAY (4 stars out of four))

"A sublime and intelligent exploration of one family and its mythology of sorts... Ms. Packer is a wonderful portraitist, allowing childhood moments to unfold in all their riveting innocence (including a breathtakingly perfect, terribly sad music recital scene) and following the family as choices beget choices and lives intertwine or unwind... This entertaining,poetic novel layers a multitude of human contradictions, and what is most moving is that even with so much hostility and melancholy, the family story here is one of love.
It is about how we return again and again to understand, to make things right, even as we seek to move on from ancient pain." (Lisa Jennifer Selzman Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

"Bursting with poignancy... refreshing." (The New Yorker)

"Four grown siblings, driven together by deciding the fate of their childhood home,try to decipher the calculus of their parents’ troubled marriage in Packer’s elegant third novel." (Kansas City Star (Best Books of 2015))

"A riveting novelabout how family molds us – for good and ill – and the grace that comes withforgiveness.” (People Magazine (Top 10 Books of 2015))

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1St Edition edition (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1476710457
  • ISBN-13: 978-1476710457
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (252 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #337,176 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Phew! You know all those jokes about having to get drunk or behave in some other such activity after spending too much time with your family? Well, that is how I felt after spending time with the Blair family. This is not to say that this is a bad book--there is actually much to recommend it--but I, personally, did not enjoy it. Admittedly, I'm not a reader who needs to enjoy a book in order to appreciate a book and, for the most part, I did appreciate this one.

The best way I can think of to describe this book to someone is to think of an unfunny and dramatic version of Parenthood--the movie, not the TV show. Four adult children come together to deal with their childhoods under the shadow of their ever-present (but deceased) father and their absent mother. As is common with families, each child had a role--the oldest, the responsible and only girl, the treasured one, and the"bad" one and, as adults, they are all dealing with these roles.

The drama in this book is very realistic and, because of that, very painful. I am sure that readers who enjoy family dramas will have more success with this title than I did. Each of the children are explored, both as kids and as adults, and that results in 4 thorough character studies. I found the oldest two children, Robert and Rebecca, the easiest to relate to. The youngest, James, was at least understandable by the end of the book. Ryan, however, never really gelled as a real character for me. My guess is that Packer was trying to play with the idea of gender with him--he is heterosexual, but very feminine. While I don't think there is anything wrong with that, I don't feel it was done in a way that was effective and I'm not sure why that is.
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Format: Hardcover
I'd rate this 4.5 stars.

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.
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Format: Kindle Edition
3.5 stars if I could .

We all have our family history and maybe secrets or resentments or loving moments that shape who we are as adults . Ann Packer's family saga introduces us to the Blair family - Bill and Penny and their four children . The book is structured with narratives in third person telling of their childhood days and these are interspersed with narratives from the points of view of all of the children as adults . This alternating between past and present gives us an idea of the things that are now affecting them as adults.

From the beginning something seemed missing from the relationship when Bill and Penny marry - is it passion or love or a lack of understanding of who they were ? It seemed like they married only to marry and before we know it they have four children, the last of whom wasn't planned .

It doesn't take long to realize there are problems in this marriage . That is evident from the early chapters. There was also something missing from Penny's distant relationship with her children. Even as children they know something is not right and it was so telling that the children decide they need to go on a crusade " to think of things that Mom will want to do with us ."

As adults they definitely recognize that their mother was less than "warm and watchful," yet their father was loving and caring . It was understandable that Penny was overwhelmed as a stay at home Mom and wanted something more in her life , her art . I may have found her a little more likable had there been a few tender moments with her children and that she sought her dreams at the expense of her children, especially the youngest , Jamie .
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