Ann Packer’s new novel, “The Children’s Crusade,” recounts the story of the Blairs, a privileged, upper-middle-class family, in smooth, unsurprising, white-bread prose. But the Blairs’ collective psychological turmoil in Silicon Valley, land of the trendy and the multigrain, is anything but white-bread. This is a novel that poses serious questions about the impact of family and childhood on adult behavior.
“The Children’s Crusade” opens when Bill Blair, a young Midwestern physician traumatized by the Korean War, drives south from San Francisco and falls in love with an idyllic plot of land where he has a strange, dreamy vision of a tribe of children bringing him peace. He meets Penny, gawky, lonely and, lacking other plans, working in her uncle’s clock and watch repair shop. The importance of time thus signified, Bill and Penny marry. He changes his specialty to pediatrics and builds a career and a house. Early in their marriage, Penny becomes mother to two ambitious and intelligent children, Robert and Rebecca, and a third, Ryan, who is positively saintly. Then James, the hellion-child, appears. Penny cannot control James and retreats to a shed on the property where she re-fashions herself as an artist. The Blair children plot a crusade to return their mother’s attention to the family, but as the culture around them grows wealthier and more permissive, she drifts further still.
Ann Packer’s previous novels, including “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier,” are also written in unremarkable but observant prose. Packer is more interested in a novel’s structure than its style, and “The Children’s Crusade” is elegantly designed, alternating third-person scenes of family history with the siblings’ first-person narratives. Dialogue and action often come to brief, vivid life. Of the kindergarten teacher who has clearly struggled to keep him in line, James reports: “She is my queen,” and his dialogue thereafter smacks of such delicious grandiosity. When he narrates his own story, however, he sounds very much like his siblings and the omniscient narrator. What these characters say and think about each other is an intriguing challenge to a single notion of truth, but how they say it tends to the bland and summarized. As family members invariably do, all the Blairs judge each other: “Had [Bill] stayed awake and listened, he would have heard Penny scolding James for the mess he’d left in the kitchen — not because of the mess, which was minor, but because she’d failed to advance the cause of her career at the Lawson party.”
Penny comes in for many such harsh judgments, both from her family and from the voice-of-God narrator. Her daughter Rebecca will more sympathetically use the psychoanalytic theories of Donald Winnicott to try to understand her. American literature has a rich tradition of exploring the painful tugs on the mother-artist’s life, from Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” to Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Are You My Mother?,” which also employs Winnicott as theoretical underpinning. But this novel has perhaps a bigger challenge: to explore those tugs not from the mother’s perspective, but from the children’s. In this regard, Penny is unquestionably the villain, one who, as she puts it, “ruin[s] things.”
Of course, monstrous and even murderous mothers exist and always have, especially in literature, where their presence can be especially satisfying. Here, the few glimpses into Penny’s perspective invariably reveal her to be petulant, humorless, selfish and unimaginative. It’s not at all clear how she’s managed to train herself as an artist, but after years of chauffeuring, cooking and cleaning, boy can she recognize a Franz Kline on the wall. She doesn’t appear to have much of an interior life, which would be a fair enough reflection of a child’s perspective, if so much space weren’t devoted to their father’s far more sympathetic musings. And in a novel where a mother’s sudden compulsion to create art drives the plot, the absence of any other women around her — mothers or artists or jugglers — means that she’s portrayed in a suburban vacuum. A reader could be pardoned for thinking Penny doesn’t get a fair shake.
But “The Children’s Crusade” is filled with reassessments throughout, and finally even this Bad Mother, as she summons her son James on a pilgrimage to visit her, is given authorial insight, if not pardon. Their confrontation is the story’s most satisfying encounter. In its final pages, the novel also does much more justice to the strange domestic art Penny produces, especially by the time she is (miraculously) self-sustaining and living (where else?) in Taos, N.M. Perhaps this is apt. Packer is a novelist whose gifts lie in describing the particular, and you can’t get more particular than gluing photos of your psychologically abandoned children’s faces to miniature TV screens. That image suggests Packer’s occasional wry humor, but also her characteristic, and more frequent, narrative generosity.
Valerie Sayers, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of six novels, including “The Powers.”
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Ann Packer will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE
By Ann Packer
Scribner. 432 pp. $26.99