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They Came Like Swallows

Style: Classic

Attitude: Edifying

This review was contributed by Lucy Smith, Portico Books

In Brief: Insightful and tender look at motherhood, family and death during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 in America. A beautiful and heartbreaking story recommended for sensitive readers 12 years and up.

Author: William Maxwell

Publisher: Vintage

Published in: 1937

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: WWI

Setting: a small Midwestern American town

Genres:  ClassicGrowing-Up


Characters:

  • Bunny – a highly sensitive and thoughtful 8 year old boy whose mother is at the centre of his world. He feels bullied by his older brother Robert, whose attention he craves, and misunderstood by all but his mother.
  • Robert – Bunny’s 13 year old brother who is disappointed having a brother like Bunny. He feels unable to relate to Bunny who is more interested in toys and staying indoors than playing sports and the more grown-up boys’ games with Robert. When Robert was young he was in an accident and lost one of his legs. His innate protectiveness of his mother is increased when he learns she is pregnant, and heightened when she starts to show signs of succumbing to the fever that is devastating their small town.
  • James Morrison – a father whose wife is his life, and who loves his children but does not understand them, particularly Bunny. He is rather stern and his children find him quite strict and unapproachable at times. He must learn to overcome his parental inadequacies for the sake of his children.
  • Elizabeth Morrison – a strong, loving and capable woman whose life consists in looking after her family and creating a loving home for them. She is able to understand her children, husband and their differences, as well as provide the emotional stability for the family. She must face the possibility of leaving her children motherless, and fight to protect the life of her unborn child.

Synopsis:

At the centre of 8 year old Bunny’s life is his mother who is the only member of the Morrison family who understands Bunny’s sensitive and thoughtful nature. His older brother Robert wants to play with Bunny and be friends with him, but he doesn’t understand him. Robert likes to play outside while Bunny prefers to remain inside. Their father is well aware of the fact that he doesn’t have a very close relationship with his sons and finds it hard to understand them. While these three members of the family remain distanced from one another, Mrs. Morrison understands them all and it is through her that the family is united.

Listening to their father reading the local paper the boys become aware of a terrible flu ravaging their town and much of America. Slowly members of the community begin to fall victim to the flu, and the boys are restricted to the home more and more until the local school is closed and they aren’t allowed to play with other children. It is when Bunny falls ill and Mrs Morrison falls pregnant that the disaster that has previously been only outside the home comes crashing in uninvited and unwelcome.

When their parents go away for the birth of their new sibling, Robert and Bunny are sent to stay with Aunt Clara and Uncle Wilfred Paisley in her boring house with too many rules. SPOILER WARNING: it is there that they learn of the death of their mother. Their father returns home, unable to cope with his loss and the prospect of raising three sons single-handed. Hope comes in the form of his sister-in-law Irene, whom the children love. Irene has a daughter called Agnes and is separated due to a bad marriage. The novella ends with Irene coming to live with the Morrisons.

Notes:

This is the second novel of American editor and author William Maxwell (1908-2000) whose prolific writing career spanned seven decades. Before working as an editor for the New Yorker he taught English at the University of Illinois. During his editorial career he was involved in the formation of numerous authors, including Flannery O’Conner and J. D. Salinger.

The story is told through the eyes of the children and husband of a woman who is the heart and soul of her family. For 8 year old Bunny, a quiet and sensitive child, his mother is his protector who comforts and understands him. For the older Robert, his mother is someone who it is his responsibility to protect. And for their father, she is the centre of his life and the life of his family. It is when her life is threatened that the three very different characters must come together to learn to live without her.

That the photo on the front of the novel is a picture of the author himself reveals the somewhat autobiographical nature of this novel which is based on the death of Maxwell’s mother from the Spanish flu when he was 10 years old. I loved this book. Maxwell’s style is elegant and simple; his treatment of the issues profound and touching. I would recommend this book for a more sensitive and thoughtful child 12 and up. I would also highly recommend this book for teenagers, young adults and adults alike (Amazon has called it one of the ten best books of the 1930’s). It won’t appeal to those looking for a fast-paced, adventure filled novel. It is a slow moving and thought-provoking look at the importance of things on the smaller scale of family life.

Themes:

  • Motherhood & Fatherhood
  • Family
  • Death & Suffering

They came like swallows and like swallows went,

And yet a woman’s powerful character

Could keep a swallow to its first intent;

And half a dozen in formation there,

That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,

Found certainty upon the dreaming air…

- Yeats

“Always when he and his mother were alone, the library seemed intimate and familiar. They did not speak or even raise their eyes, except occasionally. Yet around and through what they were doing each of them was aware of the other’s presence. If his mother was not there … nothing was real to Bunny – or alive. The vermillion leaves and yellow leaves folding and unfolding upon the curtains depended utterly on his mother. Without her they had no movement and no color. Now, sitting in the window seat beside her, Bunny was equally dependent. All the lines and surfaces of the room bent towards his mother, so that when he looked at the pattern of the rug he saw it in relation to the toe of her shoe.”

Thursday 17th May 2007