The mismatched union of Bill Blair and Penny Greenway sets the template for domestic disharmony, a clash of personalities neither anticipates in post-Korean War
Northern California in 1954. Rather than return home to Michigan as expected, Bill changes his medical specialty to pediatrics, purchases a swath of land south of San Francisco, and begins to build a life with Penny, a homemaker. A sensitive, thoughtful man at home with the care of young patients and instinctively nurturing his own growing brood, Bill is unprepared for Penny’s reluctance to embrace her role as the mother of four--Robert, Rebecca, Ryan (the three R’s) and younger James--but also temperamentally ill-equipped to navigate his wife’s moodiness, her slow retreat from intimate family life.
Penny is a woman slightly ahead of the revolution that will grip the country in another decade, discontent with her role and yearning for a means of self-expression--begun with little art projects--in spite of the responsibilities incurred in birthing four children. This distraction leads to a quest for privacy, a place where she can create her “art.” Unfortunately, she fails to communicate with either husband or children, none of whom understands the rift that eventually defines Bill as emotional caretaker and trusted parent and Penny as the outlier, irresponsible and selfish. Predictably, the children sense their mother’s psychological abandonment, even considering a “crusade” to tempt her back into the family fold.
Years later, after Bill’s death, Penny has long ago gravitated to New Mexico, where she is an artist. The grown siblings are unusually close, still trapped in their childhood roles: Robert a physician like his father, Rebecca a psychiatrist, Ryan a schoolteacher, and ne’er-do-well James a rolling stone gathering no moss. The terrain of childhood dominates the novel, the effects of those experiences revealed in chapters that speak to the helplessness of children born to parents with unresolved issues, family relationships subtly altered by the chasm between long-suffering Bill and disinterested Penny. While Bill Blair is (for the most part) a sympathetic character, Penny is much easier to dislike, the chill that settles over this family assuming a kind of permanence, along with a penchant for excessive self-examination that grows tedious, to say the least. There is some hope that rebellious James will crack the shell of propriety that encases these characters. Alas, true to form, James remains ineffective.
Much like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, The Children's Crusade is an acquired taste, a passionless and wordy rendering of a family in distress. (Packer only uses the full names of her characters, never the more personal Bob or Becky--like father Bill--a formality that accentuates the lack of warmth in lieu of pragmatism among family members. This isn’t a demonstrative group.) Against the lush beauty of Northern California, the Blairs are as dry as brush in a drought, nearly incestuous in their lack of extended family and reliance on one another for emotional connection. Though the premise is rich with promise, something vital is squandered in the endless pages of examination, either of one another’s motives or the question of what to do about James, the predictable last child who cannot find his footing, subliminally aware that his mother might not have welcomed her last pregnancy. In a climactic conversation between James and Penny in the final pages, Penny asks her youngest child: “Isn’t that what we have in common? We ruin things.” As adults, the siblings recognize the problem but cling to an unhappy past that denies the bounty of the future. Not people I would care to know.