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They Came Like Swallows Paperback – March 25, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of their shared inheritance. Learn more | See author page
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the Morison house the important goes unsaid and indirection is the operative mode--conversation stops where it should start and key terms such as fear, pain, pregnancy, fail to be addressed. The younger son, an eight-year-old, passes his days deciphering adults' inaccessible discussions. "In this fashion they communicated with each other, out of knowledge and experience inaccessible to Bunny. By nods and silences. By a tired curve of his mother's mouth. By his father's measuring glance over the top of his spectacles." Bunny's older brother would rather escape to the outside world, and their father finds declaiming the day's headlines--World War I's end and the onslaught of Spanish Influenza--far preferable to engagement. Only Elizabeth, their mother, is capable of holding the family together. The fifth main character in They Came Like Swallows is the house itself. Maxwell expresses the boys' reactions through this labile, interior landscape. Bunny finds the dining room can be "braced and ready for excitement"; later his brother realizes "for the first time how still the house was, how full of waiting, ... tense and expectant." Though war never makes it to Illinois, the flu changes all. First Bunny is stricken, and once he recovers Elizabeth, pregnant, dies from it. In quiet, piercing prose, William Maxwell's second novel, originally published in 1937, evokes the greatest of losses and the terrors of imagination.

Review

"A story of such engaging warmth that it would thaw the heart of any critic... will melt many a reader to tears."- Times

"A heart-warming tale, the book bears witness to William Maxwell's genuine artistry."- Christian Science Monitor

"Rare...exquisite...a cameo-like perfection."- The New York Herald Tribune

"A sensitive, wistful reminiscence... very delightful."- V.S. Pritchett
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 174 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 25, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067977257X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679772576
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #332,691 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I learned of this book thru its being listed by Amazon as one of the ten best books of the 1930s. It is easy to read, but is sad and poignant. It speaks first from the viewpoint of the 8-year-old, then from the viewpoint of the 13 year old, finally the denouement: When I closed the book I realized that it would remain in my memory far longer than most novels. For those of you familiar with Josephine Johnson's Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, Now in November, am I wrong to think this book resonates the way that book has done (read by me over 40 years ago)?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Maxwell, longtime fiction editor for the New Yorker, had a prolific writing career that spanned seven decades. His writing is spare and elegant, his characters genuine. This short(150 pages)novel deals with a family coping with the death of the mother. Each of the three chapters is written from the perspective of one of the survivors -- a preteen boy, a teenage boy, and their father. There is not a wasted or misplaced word in this book. Maxwell manages to capture the depth of experience of each of the characters in very few words. Maxwell should be ranked with the greatest of 20th century American authors; his relative obscurity is a mystery to me. This is my favorite of his novels.
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Format: Hardcover
W.B. Yeats said: "And yet a woman's powerful character could keep a swallow to its first intent." Bunny is eight and Robert is thirteen the year their mother dies. In 174 brief pages, William Maxwell portrays a mother as seen through the eyes of her husband and two sons. To tender Bunny, his mother is the great protector; to adventurous Robert with one good leg, his mother is his champion who sees him as "normal" and able. To a loving husband, she is the reason his life has taken shape "by her wisdom and by her love." At the end of the book Robert's father asks, "You won't forget your mother, will you, Robert?" The reader won't forget this touching book either. I believe the author's mother died of influenza when he was a child so I wonder how much is perhaps a memoir.
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Format: Paperback
I teach an undergraduate course in epidemiology and a video I show features elderly people who remember the 1918 flu epidemic in the U.S. One interview featured William Maxwell, who spoke eloquently about the illness and death of his mother as a result of the disease and this caused "the shine to go out of everything." I didn't make the connection between this interview and the William Maxwell of The New Yorker fame until recently. I just finished this book and found the simple story to be very moving. Based no doubt on losing his mother to the flu, he crafts a simple story from the point of view of her two sons and husband who lose their mother/wife, the reader realizes the devastation that comes when a family member is lost. The wife/mother is the heart of this family and the loss they feel is poignantly revealed by the three narrators. This is the first William Maxwell book I've read and I intend to explore some others. Maxwell is a gentle writer and I look forward to reading more. Give this one a try!
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Format: Paperback
The novel is split into three sections and each uses a different point of view--first Bunny, then Robert, then the father. The points of view are extraordinarily well realized. An authentic, believable young child's point of view is difficult for any writer to achieve--Maxwell's Bunny rings true--so true it could be the tuning fork. It has no equal.
My only caveat is that I find the original version better than the current edition, which changed a scene or two. (Why?) Read the current edition and go to the library or haunt your used bookstore for the original.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Words fail me when it comes to describing this exquisitely rendered little novel first published over seventy years ago. Two boys, eight and thirteen, lose a mother; a husband a wife, sisters a sister. This is perhaps the most delicately described story of pain, loss and relationships I have encountered in many years. The sense of time and place, of a small town in Illinois in 1918, the year of the horrific Spanish influenza epidemic, is so real you can lose yourself as if the ensuing seventy-plus years had never happened. Like Maxwell's other book I have reviewed here, The Folded Leaf, this book - They Came Like Swallows - is simply beautiful. A masterpiece. - Tim Bazzett, author of LOVE, WAR & POLIO
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As is usual for me, after reading this book I took a look at some of the reviews. Certain words come back again and again: "gentle", "touching", "poignant", "restrained", "understated". In that sense, I don't have very much to add besides yes. yes, yes, yes and yes again.

I guess that it could be argued that the book is a little bit slight, but at the time of reading it was a very emotional experience for me. Maxwell details the intense claustrophobic relationship between mother and children in a real and painful way. Saying that it was moving isn't quite enough for me, but I'm going to have to let it suffice.

I read They Came Like Swallows based on a recommendation. I won't hesitate to read other works by Maxwell. Any suggestions?
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By A Customer on October 13, 1998
Format: Hardcover
The great griefs and terrors of childhood are in this book as well as the joys and mysteries.
I read it once then turned immediately to the first page and began again.
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