The Children’s Crusade appeared on our 2015 anticipated reading list and checked off many of the hallmarks this Literary Hoarder looks toward for what is usually known to her to be a great read: family dysfunction along with a good fat, generational saga. These hallmarks were at the foundation of The Children’s Crusade’s premise.
The Children’s Crusade is the story of Bill and Penny Blair, and their four children: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James. In the Blair family’s early history, Bill Blair had purchased a plot of land, long before it would become known as Silicon Valley. It was his intent to settle down and raise a family in a home to be built on this land, his prized property. One other part of this plan would of course have to be marriage, and that was to Penny Greenway. (Great name right? 😉 ) Penny was the only woman he felt that special kind of spark. She also announced early on in their courtship that she had already filled scrapbooks with cut outs of her perfect family. This complete, ideal and perfect family had always been drawn to contain 3 children: 2 boys and 1 girl.
The first three children to bless the Blair family are named Robert, Rebecca and Ryan. Penny’s perfectly dreamed of family: two boys and one girl. And then, along came a fourth child, a boy named James.
James, his name itself should begin to speak volumes to the reader.
With James, there is no R name granted to him, and Penny now appears to have completely thrown in the towel. James is a wild, uncontrolled child, prone to many outbursts. The rest of the Blair children learn at a very young age to tiptoe and steer clear of their mother, and also to try and contain James and keep him away from their mother as much as possible. Their father, a man they adore and crowd happily around when he comes home, kind of like starved animals craving any attention or touch, is well aware of the detachment his wife has towards the children and tries to fill the void as much as he can.
“Penny understood that her mother’s point of view came from an earlier era, but she couldn’t get over the inherent unfairness of being judged by the mother of a single child…As opposed to a pack of kids led by a brilliant and demanding boy, complicated by a headstrong girl with no gift at all for the arts, softened and therefore confounded by a meek and dreamy boy, and finally overwhelmed by a miniature wild man.” (p. 218)
This is how Penny describes her children. Throughout their childhood, Penny would often disappear and sometimes leave the family high and dry, as in leaving with the car, stranding the family to rely on others to bring them home, all because she simply felt overwhelmed. Later, she would have an epiphany on how to claim time to herself and created an art studio in a shed down the hill from their house. Here, she took to spending long hours, sometimes not returning to the house until long after the kids had gone to bed.
This behaviour never went unnoticed by the Blair children and it was an early discussion they had about creating a “crusade” as a way to entice their mother to pay attention to them. As the oldest son, Robert, says, “In case you haven’t noticed, she doesn’t care about anyone but herself.” (p. 230)
The Children’s Crusade is structured into alternating chapters that go back to when the four were children and then chapters where their individual stories are told, and where they are now adults. The chapters with the titles related to “events”, such as “The Party”, “The Crusade”, “The Studio”, contained the story of their childhood. The chapters entitled, “Robert”, “Rebecca”, “Ryan” and “James”, contained their adult stories. These were the chapters where they reflected on their childhood memories and also contained details of their adult lives and relationships.
The chapters with their adult lives also centred on the return of James to the family home – the roaming, never settled in one place, wild child – who has come home to convince the other siblings to sell their childhood house. (He’s broke, he needs the money and the sale of the Blair family home promises a nice chunk of change.)
The chapters containing their adult lives were the ones where The Children’s Crusade fell apart for me. Their lives, their relationships all rang deeply hollow. Their relationships and their individual lives had the consistency of cardboard. These chapters were also filled with nonsensical filler, such as talk about sex and sex acts that were planted in odd places that made for odd reading. The situations the siblings found themselves within these chapters were also silly and sometimes downright absurd. Their relationships were all very empty and highly unbelievable. Very, very flat and truly unbelievable, or not authentic.
The children had grown to become extremely one-dimensional and very flat people. Especially Penny’s favoured child, Ryan. The long haired, gentle boy had grown into a Hippie, but this personality did not ring true at all and there were parts where Ryan’s chapter went way off the rails into absurdity.
Too many times the sentences used came across as flat and one dimensional as well, just like the characters depicted within. They were choppy and held no vibrancy. The story also headed down the path of repetitiveness: the Blair family overall is an extremely unhappy one.
They wallowed in their unhappiness. Much of their deeply-steeped unhappiness stems from their confusion as to where to place blame for their misery. Should it be placed upon their selfish, neglecting mother, Penny? Or should it be placed on James for all the years of them having to raise him and constantly keep him entertained but far away from their mother, thereby not allowing them to have a successful or loving relationship with her. The actions, both past and present, of both Penny and James upset and irritate everyone.
At the end, James finally breaks his years-long silence from his mother and meets with her to discuss the sale of the house. He also comes to terms with the fact he knows, and has always known, that she never loved him. He could have been a Roger or a Ralph. But no, instead he was saddled with the name James. That name holds only profound sadness for him and had a great impact upon him growing up.
Penny says to James, “Isn’t that what we have in common, you and I? That we ruin things?” (p. 415)
Unfortunately, for me, The Children’s Crusade did not quite deliver the all-consuming, page-turning read I was highly anticipating. 3 stars.