Novel follows California family through the decades

“The Children’s Crusade” by Ann Packer (Scribner, 432 pages, $16, paperback)

Often, families whose lives appear to be idyllic harbor turmoil on the inside. This is not a new vein for fiction to mine, but it is a rich one, since families can be unhappy in so many ways. The Blairs, Bill and Penny, would seem to have a good life: a nice house in the woods of what would become Silicon Valley, enough money to be comfortable, four healthy children.

But – and there’s always a “but,” or we wouldn’t have an interesting story – while Bill, a pediatrician, loves children and seems to have boundless compassion for them, both his own and the ones he treats, Penny is at best an ambivalent mother. She feels stifled by the demands of four children and unfulfilled in her life. And it shows, so obviously that the children attempt to think of an idea – their “crusade” of the title – to re-engage their mother and make her happy. It’s a big burden for young children, who lack the perspective to understand why their mother is disengaged. Later, when they’re grown, having sublimated their childhoods in different ways, the return of the youngest sibling and the possible sale of the childhood home brings it all back to the surface.

The novel is told from various perspectives. Each child – Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James – gets a chapter of his or her own, and these are interspersed with chapters detailing parts of the family’s history. This technique works well, giving each sibling a voice in telling it. The voices are real, and the story compellingly shows how each member of the family deals with it: responsible Robert, following in his father’s career footsteps; Rebecca, who becomes a therapist and forgoes children of her own; Ryan, the free spirit; and James, the youngest, the surprise baby, the eternal “odd man out.” The effect is a full view of the family, good and bad, all the frustrations and the hope that comes with reconciliations.

Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at

If you go

Ann Packer reading and book-signing

Who: Ann Packer is the author of “The Children’s Crusade,” two other novels and two story collections

What: Reading and book-signing

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas

How much: Free

More info: Call 316-682-1181.