They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

August 10, 2009

I came to this book on the recommendation of Kevin From Canada. William Maxwell had not been on my radar until reading Kevin’s review and a review of The Chateau over at The Asylum.

TheyCameLikeSwallowsThe story revolves around the Morison family: Elizabeth (mother), James (father), thirteen year-old Robert, and eight year-old Peter (Bunny). Numerous other characters play a prominent role in the novel and the lives of the family, including particularly the boys’ aunt Irene, the cook/maid Sophie, and the boys’ Aunt Clara and Uncle Wilfred Paisley.

The rather short book (174 pages in my copy) is divided into three roughly equal sections each of which, though told in the third-person, is narrated from the perspective of a different family member. The first belongs to Bunny.

Bunny is a precocious child, though not very robust. At eight, Bunny plays with dolls, tries not to go outdoors, and cries easily and often. One morning he is watching the rain, hoping that it will last and he will not have to go outside. When he asks his mother if she thinks it will continue, she tells him, “Rain before seven –“, leaving unspoken the “clear by eleven” conclusion. It is nearly too much for Bunny and then he hears his mother say to herself that he is almost a grown man and should not need to come to her “again and again to be reassured.”

Another time, he promised; another time he would try and not give in to weakness. If only she would not be severe with him now. He could not bear to have her that way. Not this morning. . . . Feeling altogether sorry for himself, he began to imagine what it would be like if she were not there. If his mother were not there to protect him from whatever was unpleasant — from the weather and from Robert and from his father — what would he do? Whatever would become of him in a world where there was neither warmth nor comfort nor love?

Bunny is very much his mother’s child.

Bunny’s is not the only world that revolves around Elizabeth Morison. Though we are first introduced to Robert (with one artificial leg) as Bunny’s tormenter and Robert’s own section begins with a game of football, Robert too is connected more with his mother than his father. Robert and his father have an awkward relationship:

His father’s comments embarrassed him. I’m glad you told me, son. But now the best thing is to foget that as quick as you can. If you want to grow up to be decent and self-respecting, you haven’t time for any foul-minded talk like that. . . . Or, out of a clear sky his father would say Remember now, it doesn’t make any difference what kind of trouble you run into; your father will always be right here. . . . Something that Robert knew perfectly well. And that somehow there was no need for saying.

The entire family revolves around Elizabeth Morison; she is what makes the family work.

Maxwell captures the family dynamics wonderfully. The relationships between each of the family members are rendered pitch perfect. This novel is about the family, how it works, and whether it can adapt in the face of change.

A number of events and decisions are looming that threaten the current dynamics. Elizabeth is pregnant with a third child which will usher in changes for both Robert, who will have to change rooms, and Bunny, his mother’s “angel child.” The beautiful and charming Aunt Irene, best friend to Elizabeth and favorite of Robert and Bunny, is considering whether to return to Uncle Boyd Hiller who lives across the country. Sophie seems likely to follow Karl, the hired hand, back to Germany if he goes. And, most menacingly, the Spanish influenza epidemic is raging.

Maxwell manages all these elements deftly. He builds and releases tension in each of the storylines, illuminating sometimes overshadowed aspects of family life. Ultimately, the family does suffer tragedy. Even to the end, it is not entirely clear how the family will reshape itself, if it survives as a family at all. We are only shown how the family copes in the immediate aftermath and begins to settle into a new reality.

Maxwell is an outstanding writer. His prose is efficient and well-suited to his subject. The structure of the book is particularly effective in addressing the themes on which Maxwell focuses. The shifting perspectives give the reader a fuller picture of the family and events than could otherwise be achieved. Maxwell’s technique is flawless and his talent enviable.

I am pleased to have been introduced to Maxwell.