Saturday, January 14, 2017

"They Came Like Swallows," by William Maxwell

A mention of William Maxwell in Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader” (see my 1/5/17 post) reminded me of what a wonderful writer he was. He was a masterful novelist and short story writer, as well as a longtime editor, including being fiction editor of The New Yorker for almost 40 years in the mid-twentieth century. This reminder of Maxwell, some of whose work I have read, but very long ago, prompted me to find his early novel “They Came Like Swallows” (Vintage, 1997, originally published 1937). This slim novel describes a Midwestern family of which the mother, Elizabeth Morison, is the center and the focus. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the young boy Bunny, who adores his mother. His father James is a good man, and his older brother Robert, although they fight as siblings do, supports and defends Bunny when needed. Something terrible happens that changes everything for the family; we are shown the family both before and after this event. The setting of the Midwest in the early part of the twentieth century is beautifully portrayed, and the characters are drawn with careful observation and affection, as well as a hint of lyricism. The portrait of Bunny is particularly masterful and touching. Maxwell based much of his fiction on his own life, although of course transformed by art. I was moved by the story, and impressed by Maxwell’s restrained but powerful depiction of this small but absorbing family and world, long ago but in many ways timeless and universal.

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