They Came Like Swallows
by William Maxwell (1937)
The Library of America (2008)
pp. 167 – 286 of William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories
Ever since I read it (gosh, a decade ago now!), William Maxwell’s final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, has been on whatever list of top five novels I’ve attempted to put together. That was my first experience with Maxwell’s work, and my 2009 post is here. I then went back to read his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven. Maxwell thought it was weak and derivative, and, though I thought it well done and had some good qualities, I agreed that it was derivative here. That was the last time I sat down with one of Maxwell’s novels, though I’ve held on to the goal of reading all six of them. I decided that the time had arrived to resume this modest goal and read his highly acclaimed second novel, They Came Like Swallows.
This review (but not this paragraph) is going to contain what many people would consider to be a spoiler. I do not want to tip-toe around a central event. Maxwell’s strength is not surprise; indeed, he seems to fight against that urge, laying out most of the premise to So Long, See You Tomorrow in the opening pages of that book. Rather, Maxwell is about building a world and psychology through a delicate structure and then exploring themes within that sphere. I will say that I knew what this book was about when I picked it up, so I don’t know whether lack of spoilers would enhance the novel. If you’re sensitive to spoilers, I’ll just recommend you read this short book. I don’t think you’ll regret it! And now, on to my thoughts.
Maxwell was born in 1908. Ten years later, he survived the vicious 1918 flu epidemic, but his beloved mother did not. They Came Like Swallows is a semi-autobiographical novel that takes place in November and December 1918, and there Maxwell looks at the way all of the peace and comfort in a world can be shattered at once.
First, Maxwell creates that world, and he chooses to do so first from the perspective of an eight-year-old boy. The boy’s nickname is Bunny. He’s somewhat anxious and lives for the peace and comfort that abides when he is home with his mother, when his father and older brother are absent. Bunny is an innocent child just starting to make connections in the world around him, and much of this first part consists of his impressions and inner concerns, concerns primarily focused on the assurance his mother provides. If Bright Center of Heaven was derivative of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, this part of They Came Like Swallows owes a large debt to the first few pages of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; only here Maxwell creates something unique and strong on its own, and it serves a larger purpose in the book as a whole.
We follow Bunny over a relatively calm November weekend. He’s excited that it’s raining because then he might not have to go outside. The worst thing that can happen to him is disapproval from his mother, even if it is very slight. Any perceived withdrawal of motherly acceptance and protection destroys his equilibrium:
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 not our only window into this family. The second part is told from the perspective of his big brother, Robert, and the third is told from the perspective of his devastated father, James Morison. We come to know these two individuals first, though, through Bunny. Bunny thinks Robert is a selfish disruption for everyone. He’s the kind of kid who ruins his clothes everyday when playing rough outside. He doesn’t share his toys but feels entitled to play with Bunny’s. And Bunny’s father is no source of comfort. His curt manner and expression of authority frighten Bunny: “When his father held forth in this way, the quiet which belonged to the dining-room seemed to have escaped to other parts of the house.”
But then we get a chance to see things more clearly from their perspectives. The second part, as I mentioned, focuses on Robert’s fears and responsibilities and guilt. At the end of Bunny’s part, Bunny has descended into illness, and no one in the family knows if he will survive. Robert is not as selfish as Bunny thinks, but his perspective on the home is very different. Furthermore, while no one in this family will recover from the loss that is on the horizon, Robert may feel guilt the longest: he’s the one who allows his mother into his sick little brother’s room, despite strict instructions from the doctor since she was pregnant.
Nevertheless, for most of part two, the world goes on. The home is still a sanctuary of sorts; the November days pass as routine. Robert’s brother seems likely to survive. This is all torn apart, though, at the end of that part when Robert hears that his mother has died. Right after we learn that, we switch perspectives again and follow the bereft James Morison:
If James Morison had come upon himself on the street, he would have thought That poor fellow is done for . . . But he walked past the mirror in the front hall without seeing it and did not know how grey his face was, and how, all in a few days, sickness and suffering and grief and despair had aged him.
For much of the book, James Morison is a force more than a physical presence. It’s clear that his relationship with his sons is, well, perhaps typical of many fathers who work and try to leave all that kid stuff to their wives. He exerts his authority forcefully, though not violently, perhaps because that’s the only time he has much interaction with the children. And now he’s left with these two strangers and without his companion: “James put his hands over his eyes and felt the relief of darkness.”
They Came Like Swallows feels completely, uncomfortably real. Maxwell must have dug deep to bring this painful part of his own past to the surface and to look at it from a variety of perspectives. What a fine, human, empathetic portrait we get of three very different men trying to deal with life and then with the end of life. And Maxwell builds it beautifully, the power growing steadily though subtly as we turn the pages.