“I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”
You can’t approach Ann Packer’s novel, The Children’s Crusade without evoking images of the 13th century and the disastrous (and possibly exaggerated) historic event in which thousands of children participated in a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Ann Packer’s novel, the crusade in the title concerns the desire of four children to try to include their mother in their lives–something that’s far more complicated than it first appears, but I want to back up a bit before going further.
The Children’s Crusade begins in 1954 when Michigan native Dr. Bill Blair, freshly discharged from the navy, discovers the wonders of Portola Valley. He buys a 3.1 acre property, begins a second residency in pediatrics at UCSF, and marries a woman he meets, Penny, when taking in a watch to be repaired. Eventually Bill and Penny have 4 children together: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, and the children are brought up in what should be an idyllic location in an enviable home. The novel goes back and forth in time, so in alternating chapters, we see the children as they grow up and what they have become in adulthood. Robert is a doctor specializing in Geriatrics–married with children, but now middle-aged, depressed and unhappy, he can’t really understand where his life went wrong. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. Ryan is a teacher happily married to a French-Canadian woman, and the youngest, James, is the black sheep of the family who returns home when things go south in Oregon.
The novel’s main dilemma, wrestled with in the chapters set in the present, is what to do with the family home now that Bill Blair is deceased. The house and the land, worth millions, is currently rented to a wealthy man who wants to buy the property, tear down the original house and build a mega-mansion. It’s tempting to sell it and divide the money, but that decision also involves demolishing the myth of a happy home life and will also involve some agreement between the children and their mother, Penny Blair.
This is a profoundly sad, yet moving novel, for while dysfunctional family stories pop up like weeds, the Blair family is functional–they get by and cope even though things, under the surface, are far from normal. Bill Blair is a wonderful father, but as one of the children’s friends note, he’s more like a mother. Where does the rot in the Blair family begin? Does it begin with Bill Blair’s choice of a wife? His own mother is an excellent housekeeper, but for Penny raising four children, producing meals and cleaning the house are beyond her interests and capabilities. But since this is the 50s, it takes some decades for Penny to break out of the mold. But then what about Bill Blair–a man who cares so much about his patients that there’s very little left over at the end of the day for his wife.
As we read the narrative from each child’s perspective, the Blair family history is gradually revealed with each child assuming some sort of important role in the family’s structure. Always anxious, Robert, for example, lives to make his father proud, but James, the youngest child, becomes the one person who openly acknowledges his mother’s choices, and because he speaks while everyone else is silent, he becomes the family scapegoat and the family mouthpiece who states the things that everyone else avoids. As an adult, James cannot settle down, “a seeker who was seeking the identity of his own grail,” and yet now he returns to the scene where everything went wrong. James’s return heralds a period of discomfort and realignment for the siblings as they each confront their own history.
It’s the female characters here who are the most interesting. First there’s Penny Blair–who hated being a ‘homemaker’ but endured that role, with questionable success for decades, and then there’s her daughter, psychiatrist Rebecca, who enjoys a surprisingly supportive marriage, and who thinks she can pinpoint the moment in her life when she chose her career. She was waiting, along with her mother and siblings, for their father when he stops at the hospital to check on a patient:
I told my mother I wanted to leave, and she said we couldn’t leave, but if I promised to be quiet I could go over to the window. On the other side of the glass window people were moving quickly: doctors in white coats, nurses in caps, regular people in regular clothes. They were alone or in pairs, talking or not. I didn’t know why or how, but I knew they were different from the people in the cafeteria. And to get closer to them all I had to do was be quiet. Was this the moment when the seeds of my vocation were planted? I’ve always thought so. I wanted to be on the other side of the window, away from the sick and the worried. And to get there, I should cease talking. I should listen.
It’s interesting that James, the child who has the most problems with his mother, and the one who is the most confrontational with her, should also be the one who fails to find his way in life. Robert, Rebecca and Ryan all seem to find their vocations, and yet James, the family’s last child, is totally lost.
The Children’s Crusade argues that our characters are shaped in childhood, but there’s a deeper, more troubling question here and that is Penny’s behaviour. At what point do the considerations and desires of the individual exceed the demands of the family that a parent has committed to raise? Is Penny’s behaviour selfish? How difficult is it to be married to a man who gives everything to his patients and has little, emotionally, left to give his wife?
One of the most interesting and arguably the most difficult aspects of marriage is establishing boundaries between the entity of the couple and the individual. Packer’s tale explores the invisible boundaries between the individual, the couple and the parent. Given that these people live very privileged material lives (the estate to be divided between the four children is worth several million) this has the strange result of making us conclude that if these people have problems then what chance do other, less materially advantaged people have, and that thought can at once be comforting and disconcerting.
Many people have far worse childhoods than the Blair children, and those readers may find the tale underwhelming. The main dilemma of whether or not to sell the family home and carve up over 3 million is a problem most of us wouldn’t mind dealing with, yet material privilege cannot trump all other deprivations. That brings me to the other issues at play here regarding the terrible burden of Bill Blair’s dream and how his dream didn’t mesh with his wife’s desires. And here’s a quote that defines Penny’s problematic role in her family’s life when she’s found by her husband and children in her private space:
“Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was.”