THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE, by Ann Packer. Scribner, 432 pp., $26.99.
This psychologically acute novel follows a California family for more than 50 years, beginning on the day in 1954 when Bill Blair borrows a convertible to drive around the hills outside San Francisco, stumbling on a piece of land with a splendid oak tree. "Bill often told his children that he'd bought the land on a whim. . . . He was not a man given to whims, and they viewed the story as central to their family's creation myth, though they wouldn't have those words for it until many years had passed and Rebecca had begun to collect terms and phrases that helped her explain people to themselves." By then, the area will be known as Silicon Valley, and the value of the house will be increased by a factor of hundreds.
Rebecca is one of the four children Bill and his wife, Penny, raise in the house they build on this land. There are three R's -- Robert, Rebecca, Ryan -- and a late addition, James. James' birth is a turning point in the life of the family, as Penny, already unhappy with motherhood, desperately does not want a fourth child. She drifts away, leaving the older children to raise the younger ones, and inspiring the "crusade" of the book's title -- the kids' unsuccessful attempt to get their mother to do things with them. More than child rearing, Penny is interested in the crafts projects she pursues in the house's mudroom, then in a shed she converts to a studio. By the time the children are teenagers, she is sleeping out there.
The book lingers on the Blairs' childhood to discover the roots of four adult personalities, which we see in full bloom 40 years later when James shows up unexpectedly to visit his siblings. This part of the story is told in first-person sections by each of the four. Robert has followed in his father's footsteps to become a doctor and a family man. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who works with terminally ill children and their families, married late and obsessed with her career. Ryan is a teacher at the same progressive day school he attended as a child and lives with his wife and baby in Penny's shed; the family home is now rented to a millionaire. And this -- the house -- is what inspires James' return.
James has been out of touch with his family, drifting from place to place, not even coming back to see their father before he died. As he slowly reveals the purpose of his visit, their mother, who has been living in Taos since 1988, comes back into the story.
One of the most provocative aspects of "The Children's Crusade" is its depiction of Penny, a woman whose deepest emotional involvement is with her art, not her family. Just as much as Bill Blair was born to be a dad, she was trapped in motherhood against her nature. " 'Think how much we love the three we have,' Bill said when, newly and accidentally pregnant with James, she wept and wept. 'I'll die,' she said, and he smiled an indulgent smile that chilled her."
Packer is not interested in judging Penny: Instead, she shows how unhappiness and happiness, selfishness and kindness, ricochet in complicated ways through relationships. This is a novel with something to teach about forgiving the people we love.