The Children's Crusade: A Novel

The Children's Crusade: A Novel

by Ann Packer


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From New York Times bestselling, award-winning author Ann Packer, a “tour de force family drama” (Elle) that explores the secrets and desires, the remnant wounds and saving graces of one California family, over the course of five decades.

Bill Blair finds the land by accident, three wooded acres in a rustic community south of San Francisco. The year is 1954, long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley. Struck by a vision of his future family, Bill buys the property and proposes to Penny Greenway, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life appeals to him. In less than a decade they have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, overwhelmed and undersatisfied, chafing at the conventions confining her.

Years later, the three oldest Blair children, adults now and still living near the family home, are disrupted by the return of the youngest, whose sudden presence sets off a struggle over the family’s future. One by one, they tell their stories, which reveal Packer’s “great compassion for her characters, with their ancient injuries, their blundering desires. The way she tangles their perspectives perfectly, painfully captures the tumult of selves within a family” (MORE Magazine).

Reviewers have praised Ann Packer’s “brilliant ear for character” (The New York Times Book Review) and her “naturalist’s vigilance for detail, so that her characters seem observed rather than invented” (The New Yorker). Her talents are on dazzling display in The Children’s Crusade, “an absorbing novel that celebrates family even as it catalogs its damages” (People, Book of the Week). This is a “superb storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle), Ann Packer’s most deeply affecting book yet, “tragic and utterly engrossing” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476710464
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 614,324
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ann Packer is the acclaimed author of two collections of short fiction, Swim Back to Me and Mendocino and Other Stories, and two bestselling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which received the Kate Chopin Literary Award, among many other prizes and honors. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, and her novels have been published around the world. She lives in San Carlos, California.


San Carlos, California

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Stanford, California


B.A., Yale University; M.F.A., University of Iowa

Read an Excerpt

An excerpt from THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Ann Packer
All afternoon the children avoided their mother: moving from room to room, or from indoors to outdoors, a step or two ahead of her. They joined together occasionally, all except Robert, but they didn’t gather again until their father returned. By then it was late afternoon; when they stood on the driveway, their shadows stretched from their feet nearly to the house. Robert’s stomach hurt  most when he stood up straight, so he walked bent over at the waist, hobbling like an old man. Their father had eight bags of ice, and they each took one from the trunk of his car and carried it to the deep freeze in the garage—each except James, who ran from one sibling to another, touching the bags of ice and yipping with something that wasn’t quite shock and wasn’t quite laughter.
“I think baths might be in order,” their father said. “Or showers, as the case may be,” he added, giving Robert a look that acknowledged his seniority.
Normally this would have pleased Robert, but he was too worried to smile or even nod. The others dashed toward the laundry room door, conscious of an earlier dictum of their mother’s that they avoid the other entrances to the house for the rest of the afternoon, since she had “done” them already and didn’t want to have to “do” them again. Robert trudged after them.
His watch was gone. He had been everywhere, retraced every step from his room to the piano to the shed; he had searched and searched, bent over examining every inch of the house and every inch of the ground. And now he was bent over again, not searching but shuffling in pain.
In his room, he looked in his desk again, just in case he was wrong in remembering that he had already looked there, but to no avail. With no choice but to search outside a fourth time, he left his room and headed back to the laundry room, almost literally bumping into his father as he came in.
“Line for the tub?” his father said.
“There’s hot water to go around. I’ll bathe James and call you when we’re finished.”
With Robert gone, Bill took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was 4:55 and the party started at 6:00. Early in the summer he’d suggested they have the party on a Saturday this year, so he could help more, but Penny had insisted that it was a weekday kind of party—that a Saturday party was a different sort of thing and would change the guests’ expectations and her ability to deliver.
He found the children’s bathroom door closed and tapped at it. “Is that you in there, Rebeck?”
“Dad, can you come in?”
He opened the door and poked his head in. Rebecca was in the tub, slouched so that the ends of her braids skimmed the water. “Can you pass me the good-smelling soap?” she said.
Penny had cleaned, leaving the countertop sparkling and fresh hand towels on the rack, but there was no soap in sight.
“I’m not sure where . . .”
“Maybe the medicine cabinet?”
He opened the cabinet only to have three bars of soap and a glass bottle of cough medicine come tumbling out.
“Oh, oops, whoops,” he said, slapping at the soaps but slowing the bottle enough that it landed gently and didn’t break. “Now which of these is the good-smelling one?”
Rebecca grinned.
“Ah, you want me to smell them.” He brought a plain white bar to his nose, then a yellow bar of Dial, and then a pink bar that smelled of strawberries and chemicals.
“Don’t mistake it for an ice cream,” he said, handing her the pink one.
She watched him from under her dark eyebrows and brought the bar close to her lips.
“How was your day?” he said, easing himself onto the closed toilet seat.
She dipped the soap in the water and rubbed it between her palms. She thought of telling him about not getting to help, but she didn’t want to make him sad. She rubbed the soap harder, but it didn’t get sudsy; there was only a little foam, large-bubbled and unsatisfying. She was a bit sorry she’d asked for the strawberry, which wouldn’t be the most mature thing for her to smell like. She didn’t like it when adults spoke to her as if she were a little girl. Or a little girl—she hated it when people were talking to the boys and then changed their voices when they started talking to her. She brought one foot up out of the water and rubbed it with the soap.
“Hot,” she said at last.
“A hot day. That could be a good day, I suppose.”
“It wasn’t.”
“You aren’t a heat-loving girl.”
“I’m a comfort-loving girl,” she said, “who tolerates heat.”
“Rebeck, it’s good to be home.” Leaning against the toilet tank, Bill felt the hours of work drain from his body.
“How many people are coming?” Rebecca asked, setting the soap in the soap holder.
“Looks like about sixty.”
“Good thing it won’t rain!”
“That’s right.”
“No, that’s what you always say! You say, ‘Good thing it won’t rain,’ and Mom says, ‘You don’t know it won’t,’ and you say it’s never rained in late July since you came to California.”
“I believe you,” he said with a smile. “You are one of the most reliable people I know.”
Rebecca looked away. “Dad?”
“I tried to keep James occupied.”
He smiled. “Of course you did. I would never have thought otherwise.”
Ryan had tried, too, and he was trying again, lying with James on their bedroom floor, playing animals. He had a number of props for this, and he’d brought them out of the closet: old washcloths for blankets, a collection of bottle caps that Badger and Dog could use when they were ready to eat.
“Dog sayin’ arf arf arf,” James cried, making his dog lunge at Ryan’s badger.
“No, James,” Ryan said. “Dog is gentle. You love him, right?”
James didn’t answer.
“Maybe we should give him a bath before the party. Then he can put his new collar on.” Ryan went to the closet for a shallow plastic basin. “Let’s give them a bath together.” He set the basin between them and walked Badger over to it. “One, two, three,” he said, and he jumped Badger into the imaginary water, where Badger bounced up and down, splashing vigorously. “Alley-oop,” Ryan said, and he jumped Dog in, too. “Look, they’re splashing.”
“Alley-oop,” James said. “Alley-oop, alley-oop, ALLEY-OOP!” He scrambled onto his bed and jumped, shouting, “NO MORE MONKEYS  JUMPIN’  ON THE  BED.”
Their father appeared in the doorway. He had the rumpled look of late evening, his tie pulled loose, shirtsleeves rolled. “Time for your bath now, James,” he said quietly, and James slid off the bed and ran to him.
In her room Rebecca considered what to wear. Her colorful dresses were on one side of her closet and her plain dresses were on the other, and though she loved getting a bright new dress like the purple-striped one she’d picked out a couple weeks earlier, she generally ended up with something darker and less adorned. She had a navy dress with a small white collar that she had worn at least once a week this school year, and she was reaching for it when she saw, hanging way off to the side, a sleeveless white dress decorated with yellow daffodils, not just printed on the material but embroidered with bright yellow embroidery floss, the effect being of real flowers floating over a white background. Her Michigan grandmother had made it for her and sent it in a box with small floral sachets tucked between the folds of tissue paper. She had never worn it for fear of ruining it, and she was relieved, as she pulled it over her head, that it still fit, though it pulled slightly across her shoulders and was shorter than most of her other dresses. She found some white socks with yellow edges, sat on the bed, and pulled them onto her clean feet, carefully folding them down so they were cuffed identically. She strapped on her black patent-leather Mary Janes and stood before the mirror. She was satisfied with the way she looked—satisfied was the happiest you ought to be about how you looked; she had read that somewhere—though her hair, in the day’s braids, wasn’t quite as partyish as the rest of her. In fact, they were yesterday’s braids. She needed her mother’s help to redo them, though, and at this point, with the party starting in under an hour, Rebecca didn’t want to bother her.
She pulled the elastics off the tips of the braids and combed her fingers through her hair. When she was finished, it fell in sharp zigzags halfway to her elbows, and tears pricked at her eyes. She should have washed it. She really should have washed it, but it was far too late now—James was in the tub, with Ryan and Robert yet to go—and even if she had time she wouldn’t take a second bath just for her hair.
Or would she? She was caught in the middle, with the right but difficult thing off to one side and the wrong but easy thing off to the other, and she imagined the bathtub empty right now, available, and herself carefully taking off the dress, and removing the shoes and spotless socks, and putting her robe on, and going back down the hall to the bathroom—and she couldn’t say for sure that she would do it, which made her imagine shaking a finger at herself, a picture that came to her so frequently it might as well have been a scene captured by her father’s camera and put in one of the family photo albums. Except it wasn’t a real picture: it was the Rebecca of the moment, in this case wearing the daffodil dress, shaking her finger at another Rebecca, usually a younger, smaller Rebecca, standing with her head down.
“Carry on,” her father sometimes said when one or another of the children was stuck in a bad situation. He didn’t say it in a mean way; it was more: I know this is hard, I’m sorry it’s so hard, there are various things you could do, you could sit down and cry, or you could try to carry on. Can you carry on? I have a feeling you’ll be able to carry on.
Rebecca ran her brush through her hair, and that helped—the kinked strands blended together, and it looked a little less messy. She decided it would have to do. She left her room and headed for the kitchen, pausing when she saw that her mother’s door was ajar. She stood outside the door, listening. Water running, drawers opening: there was none of that.
Just then James came running out of the bedroom hallway in clean clothes. Her father followed, and when he saw Rebecca he stopped and smiled. “You look lovely,” he said, and a flood of warmth rose into Rebecca’s face.
“I forgot to wash my hair.”
“I’d never have known. To me you look perfect.”
“Let me see,” her mother called from the bedroom, and then she pulled open the door as if she’d been standing right there all along.
But she hadn’t. She’d been sitting on her bed gathering strength for the final push. She had cooked and cleaned, but the last part, getting herself ready, was the hardest. With the house and the food, she simply followed a plan that was the same from party to party, year to year. But when it came to herself, to her hair and makeup, her clothes and shoes, she was not so easily satisfied. Yes, she was a doctor’s wife and a mother of four, a suburban matron to the core of her being. But she wanted, just once a year, to look like someone important. The women she saw photographed at galas—they had something that went beyond a fashionable hairstyle or an expensive couture gown. It was an air of not doubting their right to be photographed, an air of having. As the daughter of a hardware store owner, Penny had never enjoyed anything like the advantages these women probably took for granted.
“Look at you,” she said to Rebecca.
Rebecca looked up at her father. When he was around she understood her mother better, or at least found it easier to know what to expect. She waited for him to say something that would make her mother go further, tell Rebecca how she liked the dress.
But Penny said nothing, and Bill hesitated and then said he was making progress on getting the children bathed. Cutting her losses, Rebecca reached for James’s hand and led him to the kitchen. Trays of hors d’oeuvres lay everywhere: on the stove, the countertops, the table, even the top of the refrigerator. “That’s a ton of food,” she said, more to herself than to James. “She did a lot of work.”
In the master bedroom, Penny was telling Bill the same thing. She wasn’t complaining, but she wanted him to be aware of her work so that he would feel honor-bound to do his, which wasn’t simply the shaking of hands and the fixing of drinks—it was much more than that.
“I am glad to see them,” he said. “Or I will be.”
“But I want you to act glad. Enthusiastic.” “Spirited” was another word. She wanted him to be spirited in the way he greeted the guests and even more spirited in the way he moved from group to group and joked with the men and teased or complimented the women.
“I’ll try,” he said mildly. 
“Why can’t you say you will?”
“Because I tried last year.” And the year before that, he thought but didn’t say. “I may not have it in me.”
She was at her dresser with her back to him, holding her hair on top of her head with one hand and using the other to pull tendrils loose in front of her ears. He could see her face reflected in the mirror, the way she turned her head slightly and cast her eyes sideways to look at her profile.
He said, “Is there anything else I can do?”
Dropping her hair, she found his eyes in the mirror and looked at him. She couldn’t say she wanted him to cross the room and turn her around to face him and then to hold her close. He couldn’t say he knew this but had Ryan to move along and himself to get ready—that even if he couldn’t transform himself as fully as she wanted, he needed to wash up and change. And so they held each other’s gaze for another moment until Penny—who of the two of them had more to lose—broke the look and opened a drawer in search of bobby pins. And with that, Bill returned to the children’s bathroom.

Reading Group Guide


This reading group guide for The Children’s Crusade includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. We hope that these questions will enrich your reading group’s conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


From the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, a masterful new novel that explores the secrets and desires, the remnant wounds and saving graces of one California family over the course of five decades


1. Explain the significance of the title of the book. What is the “children’s crusade”? Did your interpretation of the title change as you read?

2. One of Rebecca’s friends tells her, “Your dad is like a mom” (p. 35). Discuss Bill and Penny’s parenting styles. What did you think of Penny as a mother?

3. Discuss the structure of The Children’s Crusade. What is the effect of allowing each of the Blair children to narrate parts of the story? Packer intersperses the chapters from the children’s points of view with chapters where events are recounted in the third person. Why do you think she chose to do so?

4. At the outset of The Children’s Crusade all four of the Blair children were “united in [their] desire” to keep their childhood home, but they have their “separate rationalizations” (p. 160). Why are the children reluctant to sell the house? Do these rationalizations give you any insight into their personalities?

5. When Ryan and Sierra become romantically involved, the narrator tells the reader, “Robert had had a girlfriend for almost three months, but until today [Rebecca] hadn’t truly believed anyone in her family would ever love someone outside it” (p. 254). What does Ryan’s relationship with Sierra make Rebecca understand? Discuss the romantic relationships of the Blair children. How does their parents’ marriage influence those relationships?

6. During a Thanksgiving visit to Penny’s parents, the children put together a jigsaw puzzle that reveals an old photo of the family on the porch of Bill’s childhood home. The image “upset[s] her more than she’d expected” because Penny views it as “a warning about the danger of desire” (p. 228). How do Penny’s yearnings change as she settles into married life with Bill? Which of her longings do you think are the most dangerous? Do you agree with the sacrifices that Penny makes in order to realize her desires?

7. Rebecca’s analyst tells her, “We never get over it. . . . Having started out as children” (p. 171). What does she mean? Apply this statement to each of the Blair children. How have their childhood experiences shaped who they are as adults?

8. Were you surprised by Penny’s behavior at the Lawson recital? What prompts her to leave? Once the family is back home, “Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was” (p. 140). Do you think, like Bill, that Penny is being cornered or, like the children, that she’s being saved?

9. At Ryan’s birthday, James reacts very strongly to Penny’s assertion that Bill isn’t supportive of her work. Do you think that James is justified? Why do you think that James destroys Penny’s watercolor?

10. Penny believes she and James “ruin things” (p. 415). Do you agree with her? In what ways are they forces of destruction? How pronounced are the differences between Penny and James, particularly in the way that they view family obligations?

11. Describe the Barn. What prompts James to join it? How does being part of the Barn change James? Why do you think he is reluctant to tell his siblings about it?

12. What is the significance of the three capital Rs that Bill scratches into the concrete foundation of his shed? How does the presence of the carving bring Bill and Penny closer together? How does it comfort Robert?

13. Discuss Penny’s artwork. From the descriptions of her work and the reactions of others to it, do you think she’s a talented artist? The narrator says, “It was no wonder Penny was so protective of her art; she’d needed to protect it for most of her life” (p. 305). What has Penny needed to protect her artwork from? Why is creating art so important to Penny?


1. The Blair children all have strong and varied memories of growing up in their childhood home. Did reading their recollections remind you of your childhood home? Share your stories with your book club.

2. Discuss family structure with your book club—your families of origin and/or your current families. How do you think birth order and sibling relationships shape your behavior?

3. When Ann Packer’s debut novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, was published she won critical acclaim for her “brilliant ear for character” (The New York Times Book Review) and her “straightforward prose that carries a good deal of emotional weight” (The Boston Globe). Read The Dive from Clausen’s Pier with your book club and compare the two novels. Has Packer’s writing style changed since the release of her debut novel? If so, how?

Customer Reviews

The Children's Crusade: A Novel 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
love2read123 More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed Ann Packer's fiction, and I was extremely excited to read her latest novel.  I'm sorry to report that I was deeply disappointed.  The plot is threadbare -- rather than propel my interest forward, I felt lost in the meandering among the various character's points of view -- and none of the characters were particularly compelling, except for Penny, the struggling mother, who was mostly absent from the narrative.  At times I had to put the book down and return to it (I'm not sure why), because I found the novel to be frustrating and, at point, unreadable.  The only aspect that was worth the "payoff" was a satisfactory conclusion -- though I felt it was almost to the point of "diminishing returns."  This was not the novel I expected to read, and it turned out to be "not my cup of tea."
pandemonium0 More than 1 year ago
This novel includes a realistic development of characters , including an interesting take on how each of us can interpret our roles differently depending upon many complex factors. The book reflects upon the roles of gender, birth order and individual personality traits on our views of happiness. The author is somewhat merciless on the character of the Mom, at the same time almost elevating the father figure to sainthood. Several chapters  reflect the idea that we all are neurotic and that normal living is almost impossible to achieve.  The story was interesting, but the ending seemed rushed and disappointing. Still, for a reader who enjoys reflective psychological inquiry into how we become who we are, it is a novel worth reading.
anonomas More than 1 year ago
Very boring at times, but had some interesting chapters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you can get past the first two chapters, you will find the story well written, engaging and thought provoking. I truly enjoyed the book and loved the ending!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A slow read, it took me weeks to get through. I only continued because I was waiting to get to the "extrodinary study in character and the examination of the legacy of early life on adult children". It never came. All I got were meandering, disconnected and hypmotizing ramblings (with a few overly detailed, awkward and unecessary sex scenes) all to say that a selfish, dissatisfied, irresponsible crazy mother will produce an angry, irresponsible adult son. Duh.
MahMah More than 1 year ago
... If so, I would strongly urge you to read this book, BEFORE, you begin the process. Author Packer's story, which is one of the very best I have read in a long, long time about the joys and agonies of belonging to FAMILY, is a five star winner for sure. The characters in this book are drawn with such insight and knowing that each one: The father, mother, three boys and one girl -- come across as being so totally REAL that I related to each one on a visceral basis, and maybe MORE so, to the youngest BOY child in the family! A pretty good trick when I consider that in real life I would be this boy's grandmother! Read this book even if you have no children and never plan to have any. It is so satisfying on so many levels -- in particular the HUMAN level!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel, which digs deep into family and the foundation it is built upon introduces us to the flawed but always entertaining Blair family. A wonderful read that will make you think long after the last page is turned. ~*~LEB~*~
juicedbooks More than 1 year ago
There is no whiny protagonist here, but instead a family of four siblings and two parents who struggle to come to terms with the fact that family is not always desired or destiny. Penny, the mother, abandons her family to live as an artist after feeling unfulfilled and overwhelmed as a mother of four. This leads to a reckoning within the lives of the four children as they grow older and fill in the gaps of why their family was never quite complete enough to satisfy her or themselves. The structure of the book is simple and easy to follow, beginning with the grandfather, traveling down to the father and mother, and through to the children in age order. This allows the book to get to the heart of the conflict, James, whose final chapter serves as a climax to the entire story. It's a great read for anyone who reads a little too much into their family dynamics, grew up in a big family, or is struggling to define family for themselves. The Blair family is so unique, yet familiar enough in their conflicts and struggles that they might as well be your own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Didn't want to put this book down. Didn't want it to end. Loved the character development . Would have given 5 stars, but felt the ending was hurried and not completely satisfying .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book. A good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm just waiting for some"R.&R."before I would purchase this story.Call me fugile,o.k., just a tightwad(: at 14.99 I believe it is,I would be more than happy to buy it if the reviews are as good as the overview. ~~~~Granny B.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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