In a particularly chilling scene in Ann Packer's new novel, Bill and Penny Blair continue their decade-long battle over their 10-year-old son. The Blairs thought three children would be the perfect number, and James, their erratic and volatile fourth, has ruined everything.

"Don't you dare be so high and mighty with me," Penny shouts as they disagree over how to discipline James. Then she blurts out what she believes is true: "You didn't want him, either."

"The Children's Crusade" takes its name, not from the romanticized 13th-century child-led movement to expel Muslims from the Holy Land, but from the Blair children's desperately sad attempts to appease their distant mother. Packer, the author of "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," another mesmerizing and tragic drama, introduces us to a very unhappy family, circa mid-20th century, whose dynamics are ruled by Penny and, of course, James.

The beleaguered and dour Penny discovers after James' birth that she's not cut out for motherhood. She's repelled by James, who has always sensed it. Her revulsion forces James' siblings, Robert, Rebecca and Ryan, to seek ways to mitigate the maternal deprivation that haunts them into adulthood. As Penny continues to close herself off, she moves from their home near San Francisco into a shed/art studio on their 3-acre property. Eventually, she moves farther away physically and emotionally.

Art becomes her passion, not her children, whom she, almost as an outsider, views as "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."

Her art seems as odd as she is, from little people shaped out of wire with dollhouse-sized TV sets for heads to a collage that incorporates a child's beloved stuffed animal with nails pounded into it.

As adults, the Blair children must reconnect with their estranged mother when James pushes his siblings to sell the family home a few years after their saintly father dies. They'll need her approval, and that means one more showdown with the woman who rejected them.

Penny may be one of the coldest mothers to live inside the pages of a book, and Packer makes her fictional story, told through her children, feel as intimate as a memoir. She provokes readers, rattled by Penny, to consider the unique peculiarities of every family dynamic.

Carol Memmott's reviews also appear in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.