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They Came like Swallows by William Maxwell (1937)


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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 |
Rarely, if ever, have I read such an intimate and honest portrayal of a person's real self. It is normal, commonplace even, to read of people's actions and doings. It is fairly typical to read a story of a person as perceived through another persons eyes. I've often read a book that shows what a person thinks of themselves. But to hear the inner workings of ones self, the feelings and thoughts and reactions that happen without our permission or perhaps without even our conscious knowledge, and in such a matter of fact way, is moving. This is the part of a person that cries out to be loved and accepted--just as they are. This is the part of a person that is rather unexplainable. Yet William Maxwell has done it. Beautifully. ( )
2 vote melopher | Jul 22, 2009 |
The trouble with William Maxwell is that his writing ruins you for all other books. It is perfect, like a jewel. A piercing story circling around the central character of Elizabeth, the mother of a family, and how each member reacts to her death from the 1918 spanish flu. ( )
  bobbieharv | Feb 5, 2009 |
3407. They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell (read Feb 18, 2001) This is on a list of the best 10 works of fiction of the 1930s, having been published in 1937. It is a stark, spare book I thought very moving and powerful. I believe the book is quite autobiographical. ( )
  Schmerguls | Nov 24, 2007 |
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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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