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The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade was one of our selections for the Best Books of April. Here, she describes just how the book came to be:
How I Wrote The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
Despite what the title might suggest, this Children’s Crusade is set not during a medieval religious movement but rather in northern California, in a town called Portola Valley, in the second half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.
Portola Valley is near where I grew up and yet a different world. My hometown was clean and groomed, with sidewalks and spindly young trees and stores within biking distance. Portola Valley was an untamed, rustic community, full of rolling hills and great old oak trees and very little commerce. As a child I was sometimes taken to visit family friends there, and my memories are dominated by images of prickly oak leaves and fields of golden grasses growing wild. I had a sense that the lives lived there had a carefree aspect that mine lacked; that the children who grew up there had freedom to wander around their sprawling, overgrown yards without the awareness and oversight of their parents.
Many years after those childhood visits, I started writing a novel about a family in Portola Valley, and I struggled for months with my conviction that the children of my invention must have exactly the kind of carefree life I’d imagined all that time ago. On my computer there are early files in which the characters that would eventually populate The Children’s Crusade wander barefoot around their family’s property, up and down hills, along narrow trails. My own cautious nature wouldn’t stay quiet, however, and I began to think about the tetanus shots the children would need and decided to give them a doctor for a father.
His name is Bill Blair, and he is a kindly, reserved Midwesterner transplanted to California by the accident of where he was stationed in 1954, when his naval service was complete. A medic in the Korean war, he enters civilian life looking for a way to erase the images of mayhem that occupy his mind, and he dreams up a solution under the oak tree that the Scribner art department has so beautifully represented on the cover of the book. Having discovered the tree by accident, he falls into a waking dream of children running and laughing, and in that moment he decides to switch to pediatrics and dedicate his life to the care of children.
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The care of children. My early memories of Portola Valley are part of what launched this book, but there are other factors. I was once asked by a particularly philosophical friend to identify my “first principle,” and, not having one until that moment, I stammered out something about how people should take children’s needs—especially their psychological needs—seriously. I was in the thick of parenthood at the time, struggling with how to be a good mother to two very different children. I was aware of the concept of the “good enough” mother, and I was adamant that good enough wasn’t good enough. Early environment, I thought and still think, determines so much about how we develop, what kinds of capacities we have in the areas of work and love. And early environment starts and ends with the parent/child relationship. Without fully knowing it, as I sent those barefoot children around Portola Valley in those earliest drafts, I was gearing up to write about my first principle, which Bill Blair articulates in the book. “Children deserve care,” he says, and this becomes the book’s rallying cry and moral fulcrum.
But of course a novel is not a collection of ideas, or at least this one isn’t. What interests me most is character—who we are internally and interpersonally, and how we develop over the course of our lives. For the first time in my career I’ve written a book set over many decades, and one of the pleasures and challenges for me was to find a way to represent different phases of family life. Bill marries a woman named Penny, and they have four children, and I came at the family’s story in two very different ways. Of the ten sections that comprise the book, about half dip in and out of the life of the family over the thirty years following the parents’ meeting in the 1950s. In the other half of the book, each of the grown children takes a turn narrating the present-day story of what happens when the youngest–always the problem child, the thorn in his mother’s side–seems at last to be growing up. What do we carry forward from childhood? What can we leave behind? These are just two of the many questions about family and family patterns that I asked myself as I wrote this book.
— Ann Packer