The Children’s Crusade

9781476710457_p0_v3_s260x420Ann Packer has some thoughts on that old adage – “It’s all my mother’s fault” in her new book, The Children’s Crusade.  Whatever we have become may be attributable to our mothers – or not…

At first glance, the Blairs are the model family – something out of the old Donna Reed show, with the pediatrician father, the repressed mother, and four children – three boys and a girl.  Of course, they are not ideal – no family is – and Packer allows the reader to live among their yearnings and disappointments, learning how families survive, and offering a little wisdom about relationships.

After Penny Greenway marries Bill Blair, who has dreams of a family-filled house on the wooded California acres he bought on a whim after returning from the war,  she chafes at her role as wife, housekeeper, and mother.  Looking forward to the day when her three children will finally all be in school, she is sidelined by a fourth unwanted pregnancy – another obstacle to her free time and her development as a budding artist.  The story flips between her life with her young children and the grown adult children they’ve become, with each telling the story through alternating chapters.  When the black sheep, the youngest, returns to force the sale of the big house, the plot turns inward to adult feelings of inadequacy and betrayal.

Throughout the story, James, the youngest among his three R siblings – Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan – forces the action.  As a young child, James is unmanageable, lively, and unpredictable, demonstrating bizarre behavior, possibly in an attempt to get attention from a mother who would rather not give it to him.  As the others grow into doctors and a teacher, James drops out, wanders the world, and finally finds himself in a commune in Oregon.  Needing money to start a life with his new love, a married mother of two, James returns home to test the conditions of the trust his father had established before he died.  The sale of the big house is contingent on the approval of Penny, now an artist living in New Mexico, and at least one of the children.  Up until now, the children have been united against their mother and  rallied against the sale.

The “crusade” refers to the young children’s plan to make their mother happy.  What could they do as a family that would interest their mother?  How could they rein her into their circle?  Make her want to be with them?  An impossibility – Penny is overwhelmed with the drudge of her life, and only wants to escape to her shed to create art.

Packer is careful to create shadings as she describes Penny’s life in the fifties.  Penny hungers for recognition as more than the stay-at-home mother, hostess, wife of a Doctor.  Some sacrifices were just too hard for her to make, yet, in a moment of clarity toward the end of the book, Packer has James state the obvious – “Wasn’t the whole thing mutual?”  Could Bill and Penny have figured out a way to give each other what they needed as individuals?  Their children do figure it out, as they move on away from the past and into their own futures.


A Tale for the Time Being

9780670026630_p0_v1_s260x420In the aftermath of Japan’s devastating 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, debris has been floating by my home on the Hawaiian shores recently – “… housing insulation, storage bins, soda bottles, toys, fishing nets, plastic trash cans and even Japanese net boats have all washed up on Hawaiian sands…” Speculation about some of the personal items had me wondering, and In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki fed my curiosity with a story about a Japanese teenager’s diary, written in purple ink between the covers of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” washed up on the shores of Vancouver Island.

Two “time beings” connect through Ozeki’s tale: Nao, the sixteen year old girl who spent her last dozen years in America, before returning to Japan after her father lost his Silicon Valley job, and Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist who finds the journal on the Vancouver shore, protected by layers of plastic bags inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Both “beings” are struggling with finding their “time” in a new environment. Ruth decided to leave Manhattan to move to an isolated rural area in Canada to be closer to her mother in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and Nao is the “transfer student,” bullied, savagely tortured, and ridiculed by her fellow students – Japanese by birth but too American to fit in.

Since Nao has decided to dedicate her book to documenting her 104 year old Japanese great-grandmother’s life as a Buddhist priest (coincidentally, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest – though much younger), Ozeki has the perfect vehicle for inserting gems of philosophical wisdom from the grandmother, along with irreverent yet worldly observations from a teenager. Almost every page has a few footnotes, translating and extending Nao’s references; she writes in English but has a hard time not thinking in Japanese. Nao has decided to commit suicide, but not before finishing her great-grandmother’s memoir.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary entries, and Ruth’s anxiety as she tries to research the family she is reading about.  Along with the diary/memoir, Ruth finds letters and a notebook written in French from Nao’s great-uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot, and eventually an article written by Jiko, the ancient grandmother, verifying the family’s existence.  Their fate, however, is frustratingly elusive, and it’s not clear if Nao has survived the earthquake or ended her own life.

When Nao climbs the monastery hill with her suicidal father to spend the summer alone with her grandmother, a flavor of Zen enlightenment mixes with the mystery.  The story offers a glimpse of Japanese culture from the baths to the celebration of Obon, as well as gems of wisdom, sometimes humorous –

“…105… That’s how old she says you have to be before your mind really grows up, but since she’s a hundred and four, I’m pretty sure she was joking.”

The story moves so slowly, at times it feels like meditation; just as it seems Nao’s fate will be revealed, Ozeki erases the remaining words in the diary – words that did appear when Ruth started to read, words that had promised a resolution.  Don’t worry – they reappear, with a hint of the supernatural.

Although I like to read a book from start to finish – sometimes nonstop, A Tale for the Time Being took much longer – with many stops and starts and slow digestion of the intricate connections.  Ruth’s reflection on her reading of the diary mirrored my own:

“I was trying to pace myself…I felt I owed it…to {the author}…

One of my favorite television reruns is Quantum Leap, with the hero jumping back in time to fix a wrong that changes history.  Ozeki taps into this time continuum in the end, yet leaves enough room for speculation and the promise that Ruth and Nao’s lives will always be linked.  The possibilities that Ozeki proposes still has me wondering.   It’s no surprise that the book has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.