Oak Family Trees

arts3 annpAnn Packer branches out in her new novel, while once again rooting her characters in startling realism

It’s impossible to drive through Portola Valley without noting the stately guardians dotting its hillsides—and, no, I’m not talking about the dot-com mansions that seem to metastasize every year. I’m talking about the coastal live oaks. These majestic, sprawling trees—some of them hundreds of years old—define the area with their knotty branches and pointy leaves, and mark the beginnings of the fictional Blair family in Ann Packer’s new novel, “The Children’s Crusade.” As she did with her other acclaimed novels, “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier,” and “Songs Without Words,” here she continues to explore the complexities of our moral choices through characters so authentic that we’d swear we’ve met them before.

It’s 1954, and Bill Blair is a doctor who has landed in California after the Korean War, hoping to recapture the sense of optimism he lost in the brutal images of wounded soldiers that he still carries with him. He borrows a convertible to take a drive in the hills south of San Francisco, and is struck by a particularly majestic oak tree, set on 3.1 acres of land for sale. He can imagine children playing beneath it, and a career devoted to beginnings, not endings. He purchases the land for a fraction of what it will be worth in the years to come, and decides to shift his specialty to pediatrics, quietly entertaining thoughts of raising a family of his own. He gets the chance when he marries the charming, gawky Penny Greenway. Together they have four children.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Raising a family in a bucolic setting during the nascence of a growth cycle to end all growth cycles. But Packer is only loosely interested in the early days of Silicon Valley. Instead, she weaves the larger context of 50 years into the highly personal, even fractured meaning of Bill Blair’s prophetic mantra: “Children need care.” Three of his children are planned, with names to match—Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan—but the fourth and youngest, James, a self-described problem child, is not. “Care” looks very different to each of them, and within their divergent points of view, fault lines emerge and erupt.

The earthquake turns out to be their mother, Penny, who embraces her artistic ambitions and retreats to a shed she refashions as a studio on the family property. She appropriates the emerging language of feminism to explain her increasing detachment, while her children plot to win her back, and their father attempts to balance everyone’s conflicting needs. It isn’t until four years after Bill Blair’s death that his adult children and their distant mother must come to terms with their shared legacy, as they decide whether or not to sell the family home. “I think we fear losing our connection to our younger selves with the sale of a family home,” Packer says. “It’s almost as if the possibility of an agreed-upon narrative dissolves when the locus of the narrative is no longer available.”

Packer knows that we wear these inner conflicts on our sleeves. They dog us in our suburban neighborhoods and seemingly stable routines. They surface as “baggage,” and challenge us to trace their origins. She finds great depth in the “nature vs. nurture,” argument, wondering how much of our burden is born with us, and how much is shaped by circumstance. She lays out a landscape we can touch, and imbues her characters with a life force that feels intimate, as if she’s taking field notes rather than writing fiction. Such is the gift of a great novelist; Packer views our moral failings through an empathetic lens, which allows her to take the long view, highlighting the rivers of connection between us, rather than the chasms they create.

And so it seems fitting that her appearance at Bookshop Santa Cruz will be in conversation with another novelist who merits her own page of praise, Karen Joy Fowler. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching two talented writers explore the shared margins of their creative process.

Ann Packer will be in conversation with fellow novelist Karen Joy Fowler at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2. Free.

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