They came like swallows

William Maxwell published this book in 1937, and I’ve read it +80 years later. One of the things I liked about They came like swallows is how the story builds on the use of simple words and ideas, how it doesn’t need complexity to give the scenes a sense of fear, warm, or excitement. It just describes what’s happening, it is honest and beautiful writing, it isn’t pretentious but real. Perhaps that’s why it aged well.

From the perspective of three males -husband and sons- we are told about the accounts of a middle-class family in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century – specifically in the Autumn of 1918, in the middle of the Spanish flu.

We’re introduced to the story from the perspective of the little Bunny, an 8-year old which comments on the adult world from his perspective. Then goes Robert, Bunny’s big brother, which I was prepared to hate after reading the first part – what I’ve got instead was a nuanced teen with his own struggles. Finally, the circle is closed with James, the father. Through the perspectives of these men at different stages in life, we learn what the author has to say about life, which is well captured by the title: swallows come and go, so does life.

This book has many angles a reader can enjoy: domestic realism, a historic account of the effects of Spanish flu at the beginning of the century, etc. One that I haven’t seen talked about is feminism and matriarchy. I believe you could read this as an homage to spouses and mothers of all times, but also as a plea for stopping offloading work to them, as for Elizabeth is the one that does the emotional labor, plans the future, and takes care of the house. I don’t think that was the intention of the writer, but the fact that she doesn’t get to say anything but through the voices of the loving men around her is just the perfect metaphor to channel that kind of message.

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