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They Came like Swallows by William Maxwell (1937)


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A quiet, beautifully written family portrait; not a page turner though. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
3.5 stars.
Our book club had an interesting discussion of the complex book, which at first glance we expected to be similar to our previous month’s read ([Crow Lake]), but which was really very different.

We talked about whether the age in which it was written (and about which it was written) was partly the cause, or whether it was the author’s gender. (We found [Crow Lake], written by a woman, more engaging.) We thought Maxwell’s own history of having lost his mother at a young age affected how closely he could get to these characters; he seemed to be holding them at arm’s length. Particularly interesting is that the author manages to paint a portrait of the mother, yet gives her virtually no voice. ( )
  BookConcierge | Feb 29, 2016 |
They Came like Swallows proved to be another beautiful novella for #NovellaNovember which has been so brilliantly hosted by Poppypeacockpens. This was my first William Maxwell book, of which I have heard only good things, and have been anxious to discover for myself. I bought this and So Long See You Tomorrow, a few months ago – lovely editions from Vintage, but there was something about the title of this one that made me read it first.

Over the course of #NovellaNovember I think a lot of bloggers and readers have been sitting back and trying to pin down what it is about a novella that can make it so powerful. There is of course an economy of language which I think suggests that every word is considered, there is an intensity of feeling which perhaps some longer novels lack.

I wonder whether I could say too much about They Came like Swallows – I think there is an inevitability to certain events that the reader expects from the very first page, in a sense I don’t think there are any surprises or shocks. If you happen to be reading this novella currently however, perhaps you better not read any further than this until you are finished.

Illinois 1918 and Elizabeth Morison is an ordinary middle class wife and mother – a wife and mother like so many others, but of course, like every other wife and mother she is the centre of her family’s life. How could life ever possibly go on without her in it? Bunny, Elizabeth’s eight year old son, adores his mother; she is the sun in his small universe.

“He got down from his chair at once. But while he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath.
‘whose angel child are you?’

By those words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely. With wings beating above him and a great masculine noise of trumpets and drums he returned to his breakfast.”

Bunny’s older brother, thirteen year old Robert, feels protective of his mother. Robert has an artificial leg – the result of an accident, his ‘affliction’ which the boy is always trying to make the world forget exists. He plays sport and bicycles with the other rough boys who sometimes tease Bunny. James Morison’s world is anchored by his wife – without whom a future existence would be unimaginable.

“Satin and lace and brown velvet and the faint odor of violets. That was all which was left to him of his love.”

As the novella begins, the news of the end of hostilities in Europe is being celebrated – but the Spanish Flu is already sweeping the world, bringing fear and bereavement to communities just like that of the Morison’s. Elizabeth’s sister Irene is a frequent visitor and big favourite with the children and during dinner Bunny is desperate to tell his mother about what happened to Arthur Cook at school – but just doesn’t get chance.

Maxwell’s portrait of a loving family is both warmly engaging and deeply moving. Maxwell puts us right into the heart of this family – we feel their relationships to one another. Maxwell is particularly good at portraying childhood – understanding the everyday anxieties of children, the small battles of siblings over toy boats or precious soldier figures. This child world is wholly convincing; the view of one brother for the other, the bafflements and unspoken worries of a boy so wanting to impress his father. Elizabeth is expecting her third child, an idea which comes as a slight shock to Robert and Bunny, as they watch their mother calmly hemming nappies.

When Bunny falls ill with flu, Elizabeth is ordered to keep out of his room, Robert feels it his duty to keep an eye on his mother. He is unimpressed when his mother suddenly curtails his freedom so he isn’t running all around town potentially taking Bunny’s flu germs with him. A punishment well deserved Robert feels for not having done his job properly, his small secret fear, he watches his mother anxiously.

They came like Swallows is a gorgeously nuanced little novella, there is a heartrending tension in the story of this family, told in three sections, through the loving eyes of Bunny, Robert and finally James. The reader knows I think – as I said before – what we are moving towards. Finally we must watch these people trying to make sense of a world, which just doesn’t feel the same anymore. In the first two sections of the novella, James is a shadowy, reserved figure, seen through the eyes of the young sons with whom he has a distant relationship. In the final section we see James as himself – in the aftermath of the great and terrible change fate has brought to his life.

“It was a shock to step across the threshold of the library and find everything unchanged. The chairs, the white bookcases, the rugs and curtains – even his pipe cleaners on the mantel behind the clock. He had left them there before he went away. He crossed the room and heard his own footsteps echoing. And knew that, now that he lived alone, he would go on hearing them as long as he lived.”

I loved this novella, its rather haunting quality will stay in my mind I think for a long time, and it proved to be a superb start to my Maxwell reading. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Dec 12, 2015 |
Bunny is eight years old in the late 1930's, the war has ended and he and his family live in a small Midwestern town, Bunny is our narrator for the first part of this novel. This is not really a coming of age novel, though it does include two young children. The Spanish Flu is rearing its ugly head and causing devastation in many, many places, people are being told to stay home. This is not a novel about the Spanish Flu either, though it does play a significant part of this story.

This is the story of a family, could be any family, middle class, nice house, a few tragedies in their past such as their son Robert's accident, just trying to get by day by day. It has one of the best viewpoints, narrated by Bunny, of a young sons love for his mother. IT was wonderful to read and really made me remember my five sons when they were this age and I was their whole world. Anyway all eventually grow up. Robert, who narrates the second section, is 13, and his viewpoints of the family is a little different, not quite young, not quite grown-up. A quiet novel about a normal family that will have to deal with more than they ever thought they would, one that will change them all.

I love this author, this is the second book I have read by him and intend getting my hands on more. He has such a subtle, poignant just natural way of telling a story. No big scenes meant to shock just novels about lives lived, normal people dealing with extraordinary events, just so incredibly real. ( )
  Beamis12 | Dec 31, 2013 |
Words fail me when it comes to describing this exquisitely rendered little novel first published over seventy years ago. Two boys, eight and thirteen, lose a mother; a husband a wife, sisters a sister. This is perhaps the most delicately described story of pain, loss and relationships I have encountered in many years. The sense of time and place, of a small town in Illinois in 1918, the year of the horrific Spanish influenza epidemic, is so real you can lose yourself as if the ensuing seventy-plus years had never happened. Like Maxwell's other book I have reviewed here, The Folded Leaf, this book - They Came Like Swallows - is simply beautiful. A masterpiece. ( )
1 vote TimBazzett | Jul 28, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 067977257X, Paperback)

In the Morison house the important goes unsaid and indirection is the operative mode--conversation stops where it should start and key terms such as fear, pain, pregnancy, fail to be addressed. The younger son, an eight-year-old, passes his days deciphering adults' inaccessible discussions. "In this fashion they communicated with each other, out of knowledge and experience inaccessible to Bunny. By nods and silences. By a tired curve of his mother's mouth. By his father's measuring glance over the top of his spectacles." Bunny's older brother would rather escape to the outside world, and their father finds declaiming the day's headlines--World War I's end and the onslaught of Spanish Influenza--far preferable to engagement. Only Elizabeth, their mother, is capable of holding the family together. The fifth main character in They Came Like Swallows is the house itself. Maxwell expresses the boys' reactions through this labile, interior landscape. Bunny finds the dining room can be "braced and ready for excitement"; later his brother realizes "for the first time how still the house was, how full of waiting, ... tense and expectant." Though war never makes it to Illinois, the flu changes all. First Bunny is stricken, and once he recovers Elizabeth, pregnant, dies from it. In quiet, piercing prose, William Maxwell's second novel, originally published in 1937, evokes the greatest of losses and the terrors of imagination.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:01 -0400)

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This novel creates a sensitive portrait of an American family and of the complex woman who is its emotional pillar. Rendering the civilities and constraints of a vanished era, it measures the currents of love and need that run through all our lives.

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