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.
"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