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