'The Children's Crusade': A Heavily Plotted Family Saga To Dive Into And Savor

April 14, 2015 6:24 PM

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Ann Packer's new novel, The Children's Crusade, opens in California, on a scene that's so bedrock American, it's borderline corny. In the fall of 1954, a young Navy doctor newly discharged from service during the Korean War borrows a convertible and goes for a drive in the hills south of San Francisco. He follows a narrow road until he discovers a clearing where a beautiful live oak tree "stands guard." Instead of planting a flag, this modern day explorer, whose name is Bill Blair, puts a down payment on the land. Eventually, he'll marry, build a house, and raise a family of four children in the shadow of that live oak. By the time Bill dies, almost 50 years later, those hills will be alive with the sound of dot.com millionaires building mega mansions, as well as with the voices of his four adult children arguing, not only over the fate of the family property, but also over clashing interpretations of their shared childhood.

Like I said, that opening "origin myth" scene is borderline corny, and the fact that the plot of The Children's Crusade goes on to probe the cracks in the foundation of the Blair family makes it seem even more humdrum. And, therein lies Ann Packer's distinctive gift as a writer. In summary, her book...

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