My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county’s eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck’s brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: “From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden’s publication, the dense farmland has become something else.
When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer’s new California epic, The Children’s Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree:
He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather.
From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable.
East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck’s most difficult work and relatively neglected — despite the scope of its ambition and the author’s own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam’s sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam’s wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck’s work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers’ hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain.
The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer’s multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer’s generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self.
Packer’s Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng’s Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen’s Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents — and the stress fractures of their marriage — have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children’s Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of “carry on” and “children deserve care” are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the “crusade” of The Children’s Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father’s oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different.
Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father’s imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his “rocklike” opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon.
Throughout The Children’s Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer’s terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust — all of it so painfully real and confessional.
In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children’s Crusade, the shift between the children’s monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken?
The Children’s Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their “crusade” to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb’s urgent desire for his father’s love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.