They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

Oh, William Maxwell. Where have you been all my life? They Came Like Swallows is sublime; possibly even more so than So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was fighting back the tears as I finished it on the train, my throat constricting in that horribly painful way it does when you’re desperately trying not to cry. Set in smalltown Illinois amidst the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, it is the tale of the Morison family; Bunny, a sensitive, gentle 8 year old; Robert, his determined teenage brother, permanently marked by the accident that tore off his leg as a child; their father, James, a distant, though affectionate, figure of authority; and Elizabeth, their adored, beautiful, loving and perceptive mother, who all the family depend upon for their sense of selves.

It is a quiet book, made up of the nothings that construct our everyday lives, and filled with the long afternoons, dappled sunshine and petty frustrations of childhood. Maxwell allows us to enter the minds of Bunny and Robert, misunderstanding and misunderstood, finding peace and comfort only in the presence of their mother, who effortlessly knows their needs. We also view Elizabeth from the eyes of her husband, James, whose love, unspoken, is deeply felt; and through her flighty, lively sister Irene, beloved by her nephews and brother in law, and hiding a secret torment of her own. James’ dependence on and love of Elizabeth is incredibly touching, and Elizabeth’s gentle reign over her home, family and friends reminded me very much of Virginia Woolf’s ethereal Mrs Ramsay.

In the background of this elegiac tale is tragedy, perpetually fraying at the edges of an otherwise happy family portrait. The Spanish Influenza is a menace, as is the threat of  Elizabeth’s impending confinement. Elizabeth’s central position as the security and beauty in so many other people’s lives is the fault line running through the novel; we know instinctively that she will come to harm, and as the events gently, softly, exquisitely, meander to the inevitable conclusion, Maxwell draws us so close to her and to those who love her that the feeling of devastation is overwhelming.

Maxwell’s skill as a writer is phenomenal. In the description of a gesture, in the trembling of a feather atop a hat, he tells us everything we need to know about a character. His portrayals of the hyperbolic emotions of children, of the deep and often irrational fears and insecurities that crowd out their happiness, and of the looks and gestures that pass between lovers whose knowledge of each other’s souls eliminates the need for words, are masterful. It is effortless, absorbing, unbearably real. I couldn’t bear to turn the pages towards the end, knowing what must come. Knowing it is autobiographical made it even worse; the crushing grief felt by the characters was felt by me, too; my eyes pricking, my throat tightening, I closed the novel with trembling hands, distraught at what had passed in front of my eyes. Restrained, sparse, but incredibly powerful, Maxwell’s prose is amongst the finest I have ever read.

Simon posted yesterday about reading phases, and how infrequently he now explores one author in depth at a time compared to his reading habits as a child. I am exactly the same; I rarely allow myself the indulgence of immersing myself in an author’s work in one gulp now, whereas I often would go on author binges as a child and teenager. However, Maxwell begs to be read, to be wallowed in. His prose is awash with beauty. It’s a feast for the mind. I am going to throw the pressures of the TBR pile to the wind and instead gather up everything of Maxwell’s that I can find and allow myself the luxury of his world, for as long as possible. I hope some of you will join me.

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39 comments

  1. After reading your review of “So Long, See You Tomorrow”, I borrowed it from the library and finished it earlier this week. I grew up in Illinois, but had never heard of Maxwell (our Illinois lit segments tended to focus on Carl Sandburg or Saul Bellow). Maxwell is amazing! He is also the first author I’ve read who really understands the feel of my home state. Plenty of authors set books in Illinois, but only he perfectly captures rural Illinois with its wide midwestern streets lined with shade trees and generously built turn of the century houses, evening corn fields, prairie sky, and broad muddy rivers. He wins a prize as the first author to ever make me home sick. Thanks for the introduction!

    1. Fantastic! I’m so glad to hear that he has been such a special and meaningful discovery for you, too. I am intrigued by the Illinois Maxwell describes and it sounds like a beautiful place – perhaps not so for those who are used to it, but the romance of those shady streets and prairie skies are certainly beautiful to me. I hope you continue to explore his fiction!

  2. I have two waiting to be read, So Long etc which arrived a couple a days ago, and The Folded Leaf which I bought ages ago from the library for 10p. I was torn between delight at the bargain and giving out to the librarian that libraries shouldn’t be disposing of brilliant writers. But nobody had ever borrowed it … why isn’t he better known here? (I’m ashamed, of course, that I’ve had this for more than a year without getting round to reading it myself!)
    I did my bit to spread the word by choosing Time Will Darken It for bookgroup, and everybody enjoyed it … but how could you not enjoy Wm Maxwell!
    Now, what about Wallace Stegner ….

    1. Well Mary, what are you waiting for?! You lucky thing, having a selection to choose from! I had never heard of William Maxwell before I was given So Long, See You Tomorrow and I am ashamed and annoyed that I didn’t know of him earlier – obviously he has never had much exposure in the UK. Either that or I am just an ignorant heathen.

      Wallace Stegner is on my list…I need to get going on him!

  3. Another beautiful review! If I hadn’t already read They Came Like Swallows, I would be reading it right now… instead I think I might join you and read Time Will Darken It.

  4. OK, you need to stop this. Really. Just one book after another, so amazingly good that I keep adding them to my mental wishlist and now my head is on the verge of exploding.

    But all kidding aside, I think I really must discover Maxwell.

  5. Oh, now go and read What There Is To Say We Have Said, the recently published letters between Willliam Maxwell and Eudora Welty. I think you’ll fall in love with him, if you haven’t already.

    1. I have it waiting to read on NetGalley, Audrey! I can’t wait to read it. I can tell from his writing that he was a wonderful man and I’d love to discover more about him as a person.

  6. This novel sounds like a beautiful book, Rachel! I hope to read So Long, See You Tomorrow soon and discover this author for myself.

    I, too, rarely binge on a particular author anymore. This past year, I’ve been gradually reading through Dorothy Whipple’s work, but I’ll read one of her works and then read plenty of books by other authors before I pick up one of her’s again. I’ve been doing this with other authors that I really enjoy like Nevil Shute and Winifred Holtby. That way I don’t get overwhelmed with their work or tired of it too soon, and I drag out the time it takes me to read their writings so I can enjoy it longer!

    I can understand wanting to read someone’s work all at once, though. When you find something good, you don’t want to let it go! I have to admit that after I read Gilead, I took out Home as soon as I could from the library. Not long after that, I also read Housekeeping. I wonder if I’ll do the same with Maxwell.

    1. It really is, Virginia! I am certain you would love it, and Maxwell in general. I hope you can make some time to read him soon.

      I read in much the same way as you, I think – I will find a great author but not want to overdo it and I will also be led off on different paths by blogs and TBR piles etc so sticking to one author just never seems to happen. However, sometimes it is definitely worth making an exception and with Maxwell I really can’t get enough!

      Oh Marilynne Robinson’s writing is so fantastic – I am still to read Housekeeping – I wanted to keep one in reserve!

  7. You have worked your magic and drawn me in! This sounds absolutely stunning and I must say that that cover haunts me. Your Vintage edition hasn’t hit the shelves near me yet but I swear that I will put down my hard earned cash for it when it does finally arrive as no other will do. Well done, Rachel!

    1. Good! I know you will love him. That copy is gorgeous, isn’t it? I am hoping they bring out all his novels in those covers because it would be a lovely set to have!

  8. My goodness, you certainly know how to sell a book! You had me with the last post when you compared this to Gilead. :) Thanks for the review.

  9. Rachel, you draw me to you books like a moth to a flame. Wonderfully written. You have pulled me in to the story and I want to read it, and explore William Maxwell. A lifetime Illinoisian, I don’t know how he passed me by. Sandburg, Bellows, Terkel, and Hemingway seemed to take up all the literature space. I need to rectify that.

    Thank you.

  10. As you have just completed the truly sublime They Came Like Swallows I have finished Time Will Darken It .I have only recently discovered William Maxwell and what a golden find he is. People can wax lyrical about books and so beguiled I will pick them up and then find they don’t suit at all, not so with William Maxwell. Captain Correlli’s Mandolin was one which was so not for me ,neither was We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is however good to read what others think as it takes reading off in wonderful directions and I have The Poisonwood Bible in my to read pile thanks to you.

    1. I am so glad that William Maxwell has delighted you as much as he has me. Time will Darken It sounds fantastic and I hope I’ll be able to find it at the library next time I go on. Funny – I didn’t like either of those recommendations either! Clearly we have the same taste – so I hope The Poisonwood Bible fits for you too, otherwise I will feel bad!

  11. Lovely review. I’ll be adding this one to the tbr list. Am just finishing So Long, See You Tomorrow based on your review — amazing. There’s a nice review of the book of letters between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell in the Washington Post today…maybe hes being rediscovered–certainly deserves it.

    1. Thank you, Susan. I’m so pleased to hear that! I’m so glad you enjoyed it – I always feel terrible when I recommend a book and other people don’t love it as much as I did – or at all! I read that review – thank you – I have the book waiting to be read in my NetGalley list!

  12. Beautiful review. The other day a friend and I were discussing the psychological aspects of motherhood (a subject that doesn’t get much notice) and how we, as primary caretakers have to juggle the different personalities in our households while trying to meet everyone’s psychological needs. This books seems to encompass that aspect and I look forward to reading it.

    1. Thank you very much! Yes, there is that element to it – the character of Elizabeth is fascinating and I think mothers would get a lot from it. I can’t relate to that aspect but I still found it deeply touching. Enjoy reading it!

  13. Right.

    The library had The Chateau so when I’ve finished one of two others, that’s next.

    You have been warned.

    Bop will hold you to account for your introduction to WM; for an unheard of, now heard of; for the fun and pleasure of literary discovery delights.

    1. Fantastic! I’ve heard that’s very good. You have made me nervous now – but I am very confident you will love him as much as me! Come back and tell me what you thought -I shall be on tenterhooks!

  14. You know that where-have-i-been feeling? That’s how I felt with your wonderfully written post. Thanks for opening my eyes to this author. I am definately going to buy a WM book. Beijo from Brazil!

  15. Isn’t William Maxwell wonderful? I wholeheartely agree with you about his writing–he ranks high on my list as well. If you get a chance you might also like The Folded Leaf which I read last year or so. I’m quite tempted to read along with you–and actually seeing that you were reading this earlier and your mentions made me go and get They Came Like Swallows from my library’s shelves and I have it on my pile now, too. Not sure when I am going to read it…..but I may have to give in to my temptation! As always you write about it marvelously!

    1. Oh, Danielle, I have just loved discovering William Maxwell so much! I am going to try and read as much of him as I can – it depends on what the library has really – so I shall see if they have The Folded Leaf. You are so funny – your TBR pile is wonderful! It won’t take long to read They Came Like Swallows so I hope you do get around to it! Thank you – you are lovely!

  16. Coincidentally, I just re-read So Long See You Tomorrow after a hiatus of many, many years; my yellowed paperback is dated 1981. Having remembered only how exquisite the story was, I re-consumed it within a couple of sittings, and was again moved to tears. So many books I loved when I was a teenager or a young woman completely lost their appeal over time. This book retained, or maybe even gained, emotional power since the early 1980s.

    I have lived in Chicago for most of my life now, but was born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, in an era when it was more like the Lincoln of an earlier era than not. But that’s not what gets to me personally, it’s the story of the effect of infidelity on children that resounds.

    1. Hello! Isn’t it wonderful when a book stands the test of time and can still make you well up years after you first read it? I am the same with many books I read when I was younger – they leave me cold now, which is such a shame. I am heartened to think that William Maxwell will grow with me. I can’t wait to read more of his books!

  17. Thank you so much for your blog, without your post I would never have discovered William Maxwell’s work. A constant reader for decades, English BA, untold volumes in my house, actually lived in central Illinois in the 1980s (and loved it), less than 30 miles from Maxwell’s home town Lincoln, and yet never heard of him, not a peep, until I saw your post while browsing one day this past summer. I simply love They Came like Swallows and plan on reading more of his work over the holidays.

    I am here today because of the epidemic, my grandmother was second wife to a man who lost his first in the flu epidemic of 1919-20. I cannot even fathom the tragedy of that time, the statistics are incredible.

    1. You are so welcome – William Maxwell is such an incredible writer and I wish the whole world had heard of him. He is such an underrated novelist and I don’t understand why he isn’t more well known. I hope you will have time to read more – Time Will Darken It is spectacular as well.

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