DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Scribner, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Children’s Crusade
Published April 7, 2015
448 pages (hardcover)
Ugh. I’ve been in a big book slump for the past few weeks (hence the lack of posts/reviews). We’re nearing summer. Now should be the time for light-hearted fare, fast-paced fluff, and mindless entertainment.
Instead, I’ve been slogging through a 400-page depressing family saga that details the childhood dramas and traumas that lead to lifelong dysfunction. Thanks a lot, Ann Packer.
The Children’s Crusade is about a family of six, the Blairs:
- Dad, Bill, is a pediatrician. He is stable and hard-working and lives for his kids.
- Mom, Penny, is an artistic and volatile housewife. She always wanted three kids . . . and when she ends up with four, she decides it’s too much to handle.
- Robert, the responsible eldest, is prone to psycho-somatic stomach troubles and stress. Like his dad, he becomes a doctor.
- Rebecca, the sensible, straight-laced, smart only daughter, takes after her father and also becomes a doctor (psychiatrist). As a child and an adult, she feels the burden to mother her brothers when their real mother is absent (which is often).
- Ryan, the sensitive, nurturing, and loving child grows into a sensitive, nurturing, and loving adult.
- James, the youngest. He is the wild one, who can’t sit still as a kid and can’t settle down as an adult.
The book employs both split chronologies and split narratives. By chapter, it alternates between: 1) a third-person account of a singular day/event in the past (for example, the day of a big party the parents throw at the house . . . and all of the preparations and drama leading up to the party) and 2) a first-person narrative by one of the children recounting present-day circumstances.
The purpose of this structure, of course, is to highlight how childhood affects adulthood and how our familial relationships and behaviors are established in our early years (and fail to change or grow or evolve as we get older).
Generally speaking, I like Ann Packer’s work (like The Dive From Clausen’s Pier). It is usually well written, easy to read, and smart. This one, unfortunately, just didn’t capture my interest. The first and last chapters of the book are the highlights . . . but the nearly 400 pages in between are clunky and slow.
The first chapter is fast-paced and sets up the marital dynamic effectively and succinctly. You meet Bill and Penny, you learn about their backgrounds, you witness their courtship, you are introduced to the land that their family will grow up on, you are privy to their decision (such as it is) to start a family. And then, just as all of this is coming together happily, you are given a glimpse of the familial discord to come (“The land he’d bought all that time ago had lost something. It no longer seemed quite so splendid, and he knew the change had come about when he started bringing her with him to see it. This was not knowledge he could accept, and to make it go away he kissed her.”).
The last chapter wraps things up nicely—not with a pretty little bow, but in a way that is hopeful and redemptive (which, after pages and pages of drudgery relaying how lasting and damaging childhood experiences can be, is a welcome change).
Everything in the middle? Heavy, slow, and boring. The characters (despite the fact that you get to know them over decades) are underdeveloped and one-note. They fall too simply into pigeonholes that seem contrived and too convenient. The structure (with its split chronologies and split narratives) comes off as gimmicky and disjointed. The book would have been smoother and more effective if it had been structured more chronologically (with a first part set in the past and a second part set in present day). And the overall message is a bit too heavy-handed and obvious.
- an Amazon Best Book of the Month for April 2015
- an Indie Next List pick for April 2015
Who should read it: If you read and enjoyed Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, then this is right up your alley.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2015)
- The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D. (since I’ve become pregnant, this has been, far and away, the most frequently recommended resource)
- Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano (one of the School Library Journal Best Books 2013; a Booklist Top 10 First Novels 2013; a West Book Award Finalist for 2014; an International Latino Book Award Finalist for 2014; a 2014 Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award)