18 July 2015

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

While in London last May, Rachel and I were browsing the shelves at Foyles on Charing Cross Road.  They Came Like Swallows was highlighted as a staff favourite and placed face out on the shelf.  I pointed to it and said something to Rachel about her blog post in which she wrote about how moved she was by this book.  The look on her face, the one you make when something melts your heart, made me decide to just go for it.  American authors on my bookshelves can be counted on one hand so I was taking a leap of faith.  I finished the book yesterday with tears streaming down my face and could kick myself for the many times I've left William Maxwell's books behind on shelves down to blind prejudice.

Told in three parts, it didn't take more than a few paragraphs to fall in love with Bunny, the youngest child of James and Elizabeth Morison and so beautifully drawn by Maxwell.  Bunny clings to his doll, Araminta Culpepper, at night despite being past the age when most boys do so.  He sees animals in the shapes left behind by water-damage on the ceiling and rolls marbles along patterns in the carpet at his mother's feet.  His big brother Robert is thirteen and full of boisterous energy tinged with angst, not at all unexpected considering his age, but sadly it's Bunny who is frequently the target.

'There was no time (no time that Bunny could remember) when Robert had not made him cry at least once between morning and night.  Robert hid Bunny's thrift stamps and his ball of lead foil.  Or he danced through the house swinging Araminta Culpepper by the braids.'

We've all been there, on both sides.  One of the many skillful aspects of Maxwell's powers of observation is his ability to take you back to those moments.  And it wouldn't be fair to judge Robert too harshly as he proves to be every bit as sensitive as his younger brother but through circumstance has gained the ability to withhold signs of vulnerability.

Set in 1918 at the end of The Great War in small-town Illinois the reader is aware that the boys' formative years have been shadowed by loss.  When a flu epidemic breaks out conversation is hushed whenever Bunny and Robert are within earshot but they understand much more than the adults realize.  Inevitably, the illness does affect the family and at a particularly dangerous time as Elizabeth is expecting another baby.

At one hundred and forty pages, this beautiful novella could easily be read in one sitting,  Sometimes that can put off a reader when you're paying with hard-earned money but be assured this stunning piece is excellent value.  The economy of pages also means I dare not say much more as the story is best left to discover for yourself.  There are wonderful books and then there are books you hug to your chest when you're done and They Came Like Swallows is definitely that.


A Little Boy Writing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

***

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman's powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seem to whirl upon a compass-point.
Found certainly upon the dreaming air...
                                                                                                        
W. B. Yeats

12 comments:

  1. Oh, read his letters with Eudora Welty, and I'll read this. I fell in love with both of them with that book...

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  2. I've heard so much praise of William Maxwell that I've been meaning to read him for ages. Thank you for giving me such a lovely reminder.

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    1. If you find a copy at some point don't let it slip through your fingers, Jane. I'm serious!

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  3. What a very stirring post! I can't pass up a book that has people hugging it to chests and melting hearts. I'll definitely be on the look out for this one

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    1. Just place an order or get out there and browse a second-hand shop! It would be an excellent choice for your book club, Anbolyn.

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  4. Lovely review and lovely book! I read it when Karen/Cornflower did it for a book group read. I highly, highly recommend Maxwell's letters with Sylvia Townsend Warner - they're a real delight.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, Simon! I'm planning to visit a few second-hand shops on Sunday and will definitely keep my eye out for absolutely everything I can find. Will also check on-line to see how much a new copy will be, just in case. Have a super weekend!

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  5. So pleased you loved this as much as I did. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have letters from Wm Maxwell!

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    1. Oh it would! Honestly, Mary...I was in tears again yesterday just thinking about this book. Love, love, love it.

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  6. I`ve been meaning to try Maxwell`s novels ever since reading his letters with Sylvia Townsend Warner and discovering what a brilliant writer and frankly wonderful person he was. Sounds like this would be an excellent place to start.

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    1. Right this very minute, Claire! I look forward to reading your thoughts....
      As for his letters, they seem to come very highly recommended as well so thanks for mentioning how much you enjoyed that collection.

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