Sunday, February 3, 2008

They Came Like Swallows

I have just finished reading They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell for Cornflower’s reading group. The title comes from a W.B. Yeats poem
They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow at its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seem to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air…

The story is set in a small, mid western US town in 1918, where Spanish influenza has just broken out. Elizabeth is the centre of the story, mother to Bunny and Robert and wife to James. She has found herself pregnant for a third time and is desperately hoping to give birth to a girl. The story is broken into three parts, each with a different narrator (Bunny, Robert and James) who gives their perspective on their life, the unfolding drama and their relationship with Elizabeth.

Bunny is 8 years old and a shy, gentle and somewhat aloof boy. He would prefer to be in the house with his mother, having her read to him or, painting or reading by himself than outside running around with his peers. He is the first in the family to succumb to the flu, coming down with it on Armistice Day. To Bunny, his mother is his protector who defends him, to an extent, from the bullyings of his father, older brother and class mates. For Bunny, his mother is someone who “gets him”.

Weekdays he came straight home from school so that he could have his mother all to himself. At quarter after four Sophie wheeled in the teacart and there was a party: little cakes with white icing on them, a glass of milk for him and tea for his mother. Then he sat on her lap while she read to him from Toinette’s Philip or from The Hollow Tree and Deep Woods Book……..When his mother read to him, her voice fell softly from above. It turned with flames. Like the flames it was full of shadows. (p. 42)

After learning his mother is pregnant, Robert sees her as someone he needs to protect. He blames himself when Elizabeth develops the flu (which becomes double pneumonia) because he accidentally let her go into Bunny’s room when Bunny was sick, despite the Doctor saying she was not to. Robert was badly injured in a cart accident when he was younger and lost half a leg. He wants to be treated as a normal kid despite his ‘affliction’. His mother does that:

So far as his mother was concerned, there wasn’t anything the matter with him. If they were out fishing and had to crawl through a barbed-wire fence, his father looked back sometimes. Or called over his shoulder, Can you make it, sport?... But his mother went right on……And the same way with games. His mother took it for granted that he would learn to swim and dive, so he did. (p. 95)

James depends on his wife, and she on him.

For it was Elizabeth who had determined the shape that his life should take, from the very first morning he saw her. And she had altered that shape daily by the sound of her voice, and by her hair, and by her eyes which were so large and dark. And by her wisdom and by her love. (p. 173).


He could not believe that Elizabeth had lain awake at his side, planning and arranging things for a time when she would not be there. With other people she sometimes covered up her true feelings, though not with him. Nobody had any idea, for instance, how deeply she still felt about Robert’s accident; how at night she had turned into his arms and wept. (p. 158-159)

They have reached that point in their marriage where they have a deep understanding of each other.

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. (p. 48-49)

This is a truly moving book. Maxwell’s writing is engaging and warm. It will be discussed on Cornflower’s forum on the 15th of February, and I can’t wait to hear the views of others.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I meant to join in this month's book group, but I'm not going to have time to read it before the discussion. Doh! But your description has got me intrigued - I shall read the discussion over on Cornflower and put the book on the backburner.

    (Not literally of course... that would be destructive!)