The Children’s Crusade: A Novel, Ann Packer, narrated by Cotter Smith with Santino Fontana, Marin Ireland, Thomas Sadoski, and Frederick Weller.
Over a period of about five decades, the reader is taken into the lives of the Blair family. Dr. Bill Blair returned from the Korean War wanting to forget it. He had had enough of the war and taking care of the wounded and dying and decided to take a residency in Pediatrics so he could treat children, children who would cheer him up. Shortly after his return he met and fell in love with Penny. She believed she had met her Prince Charming, and they married dreaming of a perfect life together. Both of them brought the experiences of their own childhoods and their family interactions into the marriage with them. Those experiences will affect their relationship and the personalities of their children as they march into their future.
The author carefully explored all of the character’s minds as they morphed into adults, each unique, in his or her own way. Their likes and dislikes, successes and failures, feelings of jealousy and moments of extreme tolerance and kindness, shaped their personalities. Different events, over the years, bombarded them and changed them. Although they were not aware of the particular effect of many of the minor and major moments in their lives, the reader is given that insight and learns how those moments made them behave as they matured. The reader learned how their choices were affected by their experiences and interactions with friends and enemies, bullies and family, teachers and classmates, although the characters often remained unaware of the same insights.
The family consisted of Bill and Penny, their three sons and one daughter. Robert is the oldest, then comes Rebecca two years later, and Ryan two years after that. Unexpectedly, three years later, James is born. The lack of an “R” name will affect his feelings of self worth as he grows up. Having the fourth child was overwhelming for Penny and since Bill had become completely devoted to his clinic, she began to feel neglected and unfulfilled. When she was on, she was a wonderful mother, but when she was not, she was absent from their lives. It was an absence that the children, wiser than their years, felt deeply. They knew that there was trouble in their home. They conceived of the idea to have a crusade to unite all of them as a family, once again. As the book proceeds, the reader will notice that each one of the characters conducts their own sort of crusade. For Bill, it was to become a Pediatrician, marry, build a home and raise a family. That home and its influence on all of them becomes a central character of the book. For Penny, it was to become an artist and an independent woman, an early visionary of the women’s liberation movement that worked for greater freedom, the kind of freedom that the Woodstock of the 60’s inspired.
As each child developed, the reader could see that each one incorporated some personality traits from each parent into their lives, in some cases, more from one than another. Rebecca was very literal, very structured like her dad. She became a psychiatrist. Ryan was kind and gentle like his father was, showing compassion most of the time. He was a peacemaker who found little fault with anyone or anything. He was the optimist, always making lemonade out of lemons and accepting himself as he was. James was much like his mother but was unaware of the similarity. He was the eternal pessimist and couldn’t seem to find satisfaction in his life. He couldn’t settle on one thing and stick to it or hold a job for very long, until well into his thirties. The family always had to bail him out, one way or another. Robert was studious, and like his father, a doctor, but he went through a phase of dissatisfaction with his life, much like his mother.
Before long, the reader becomes well acquainted with all of the characters and can almost anticipate and understand the reasons for their behavior as they mature. In a way, like Rebecca, the reader becomes an analyst, witnessing the interactions of the characters with members of the family, members of the community, classmates and mentors. The reader soon is able to define each one of them distinctively because of their conduct. Sometimes, while reading, it got tedious as the day to day life was illustrated with so many mundane descriptions, but soon, the reader discovered why those details were included. As the book progresses, the influence of those mundane moments on their lives is revealed. For instance, when all of the children are looking for a spare key in a certain place and discover it missing, but also discover three “R” initials carved into the foundation, they are flummoxed, but the reader will learn why the key was missing and will know why the “R”s are present as each character tells their story, even when the character remains ignorant.
The reader bears witness to the deterioration of a marriage; a relationship that was once beautiful changes into one consisting merely of accommodation without much outward or inward expression of feeling. This dysfunctional relationship influences the choices the children select for themselves, depending on which parent they most identify with or reject. The reader watches as they grow up and morph into larger versions of the child they once were, with similar personality traits of their youth. The care giving son remains kind, the recalcitrant child who was the catalyst for most crises remains demanding and unsatisfied as an adult. The introspective child analyzes all things in her maturity, too, and the child who felt too much responsibility sometimes folds under it as an adult, expressing the same anger he had as a child.
Through friendships and love affairs, career choices and the births of children, through illnesses and deaths, the reader follows the Blair family and their home until fifty years later, their lives change unalterably, as does their home. Each becomes independent as they learn to respect each other’s particular choices, although they might differ from their own. They are all products of their history and the memories that are contained in their family home.