Reviews > Published on April 8th, 2015

Bookshots: 'The Children's Crusade' by Ann Packer

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Children’s Crusade

Who wrote it?

'The Children’s Crusade' illustrates how having a terrible mother might be the best thing that could ever happen to us.

Ann Packer, multi-prizewinning author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier as well as acclaimed short fiction. More info at her website.

Plot in a Box:

What happens when a mother decides to dump her family in favour of a career as an artist?

Invent a new title for this book:

Not So Happy Days

Read this if you liked:

Some Luck by Jane Smiley, anything by Anne Tyler. Also read this if you didn’t much like We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Meet the book’s lead(s):

Bill Blair: saintly doctor and family man.

Penny Blair: not so saintly mother and artist.

The Blair kids: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James. Guess which one is the black sheep.

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

The cast of Bloodline.

Setting: would you want to live there?

Oakland, California during the 1950s sounds like the definition of suburbia – safe, peaceful, clean, domesticated.

Not a chance.

What was your favorite sentence?

“We never get over it,” she said to me during one of our first sessions together. “What’s that?” I said and she said, “Having started out as children.”

The Verdict:

It isn’t much of a surprise that under that part of Packer’s website devoted to The Children’s Crusade you’ll find a Reading Group Guide, because this book is prime book group material. I’m not a big fan of book groups and especially not of book groups that might actually use a guide like this (and when I say ‘not a fan’ what I mean is that trapped in such a situation I would either gnaw off my own paw to escape or, failing that, drink myself comatose), but I am a fan of this book, which not only asks some important questions about our ideas around motherhood and families, but also has some reasonably optimistic answers to give those of us who worry that imperfect mothering is a social crime only slightly less dark than cooking up meth and selling it to pre-schoolers.

Mothering is a difficult business. It requires patience, self-sacrifice and a deep inability to take yourself too seriously. Mothering is not for the ambitious or the driven or the restless, which isn’t to say that if you are those things you should not have children, because motherhood changes a person, sometimes unrecognizably. The problem is that you don’t know how or if you’ll change before you have kids. Motherhood is a game of Russian Roulette. You pull the trigger and hope the chamber’s empty or at least not filled with a bullet that has ‘OMG WHY DID I DO THIS?’ etched on the side.

Penny Blair gets that bullet. She copes with three kids, but the fourth one breaks her. Patient husband Bill tries to accommodate her need for the freedom to create, but ultimately Penny chooses to leave. Her decision and how it affects her children forms the meat of the story, told in flashback and fast forward and from the point of view of all the family members (and I’m just going to give Packer a special nod here for being one of the rare writers skilled enough to switch point of view so seamlessly through a section, sometimes several times, that you barely notice the hop). The result is interwoven and complex, but also one in which the narrative drive remains very clear. For anyone who’s silently objecting to my use of the word ‘motherhood’ instead of ‘parenthood’, I don’t see mothering as a gendered role and neither, I suspect, does Packer. Penny’s decision causes pain, but also spurs growth and understanding. The Children’s Crusade is in no way a social manifesto, but it does quietly explore the idea that the roles society assigns to us might not always be the best fit.

The Children’s Crusade is also a hopeful book, a refreshing antidote to the gloomy predictions of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which homes in on the same area of disordered attachments and their effects. The message of Kevin was that mothers who get the bad bullet and discover that they’re stuck with a child they dislike are destined to produce monsters. Packer’s book provides welcome relief from this kind of judgment-heavy thinking. Far from creating psychopaths, The Children’s Crusade illustrates how having a terrible mother might be the best thing that could ever happen to us.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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