It took me awhile to figure out the focus of The Children’s Crusade, which for some time just seems to wander backward and forward in time telling the story of a family. This is not really a criticism, though, as I was interested in the story.
It begins when Bill Blair discovers a piece of land outside San Francisco after his time serving in the Korean War. He envisions children playing there, so he buys the property, and eventually he marries and builds a house. He is a pediatrician, and he and his wife Penny have four children: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James.
By the time the older children are nearing their teens, all of the children begin planning a Children’s Crusade. The purpose of the crusade is to try to think of activities that their mother will want to do with them. Although their father is warm and nurturing, their mother is distant and passive-aggressive, wanting, for example, her family to explicitly invite her on outings even though she knows they want her to come and will be disappointed if she doesn’t. When they don’t think to ask her, she stays home. She begins spending more and more time in a shed on the property working on art projects.
It is a usually unacknowledged fact within the family that the addition of James, large, obstreperous, and destructive, proved overwhelming for their mother. He feels this deeply, and it makes him more unruly. Affectionate and caring Ryan, closest to him in age, tries to make up for their mother’s neglect, but he is only three years older than James. Robert and Rebecca spend a lot of time keeping James out of their mother’s hair.
As adults after their father’s death, the four siblings are forced to consider selling the house. No one originally wanted to sell, so they have it rented out, but then James forces the issue when he needs the money to make a home for his married girlfriend and her children. Even though Bill and Penny Blair were separated for years before Bill died, Penny must agree to the sale of the house. This arrangement forces James to talk to his mother for the first time in years after one of her art projects proved difficult to forgive.
The novel moves between the points of view of each of the siblings, only briefly touching on that of the parents. It is absorbing and well written and struck some chords with me. Its examination of the complexities of human relationships is thought-provoking.