From the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, a sweeping, 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.
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 the family he has yet to create, Bill buys the property on a whim. In Penny Greenway he finds a suitable wife, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life seems compelling and answerable, and they marry and have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, at a time when women chafed at the conventions imposed on them. She finds salvation in art, but the cost is high.
Thirty 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 and all-too-familiar troubles force a reckoning with who they are, separately and together, and set off a struggle over the family’s future. One by one, the siblings take turns telling the story—Robert, a doctor like their father; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; Ryan, a schoolteacher; and James, the malcontent, the problem child, the only one who hasn’t settled down—their narratives interwoven with portraits of the family at crucial points in their history.
Reviewers have praised Ann Packer’s “brilliant ear for character” (The New York Times Book Review), her “naturalist’s vigilance for detail, so that her characters seem observed rather than invented” (The New Yorker), and the “utterly lifelike quality of her book’s everyday detail” (The New York Times). Her talents are on dazzling display in The Children’s Crusade, an extraordinary study in character, a rare and wise examination of the legacy of early life on adult children attempting to create successful families and identities of their own. This is Ann Packer’s most deeply affecting book yet.
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
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
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?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
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?
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.
Frederick Weller's films include Four Lane Highway, The Shape of Things, When Will I Be Loved, Coyote Ugly, Basquiat and Armageddon. Television series include In Plain Sight (debut USA), The Jury, Law & Order: SVU & Criminal Intent, Pastor's Wife, and Missing Persons. On Broadway he starred in Seascape, Glengarry Glen Ross, Take Me Out, The Rehearsal, and Six Degrees of Separation.