William Maxwell

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They Came Like Swallows

Maxwell, William

Last Updated: Jan-30-2006
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


James and Elizabeth Morison and their two sons, 13-year-old Robert and 8-year-old Peter, called by his nickname, Bunny, live in a town in Illinois. It is 1918, the end of World War I.

The first third of the novel is narrated from Bunny's point of view. His mother, to whom he is deeply attached, lets him know that she is expecting a new baby. Her vivacious sister, Irene, separated from her husband, arrives for dinner. There is talk about the influenza epidemic, and Bunny remembers that on Friday a boy at his school fell ill. Later that evening, Bunny develops a high fever and is put to bed with the flu.

The second part of the book is from Robert's point of view. Bunny is seriously ill. The schools have been closed because of the epidemic and Robert is not allowed to go and play with his friends. His boredom is alleviated when a sparrow gets into Bunny's room and he is allowed to use a broom to drive it out. To his horror he realizes that, while he was fetching the broom, his mother had gone into Bunny's room and sat on the bed, even though the doctor had said she must stay away for fear of infection.

Bunny recovers, and the boys are sent to stay with their Aunt Clara while their parents travel by train to Decatur where Elizabeth will have the baby. At Aunt Clara's they learn that both parents have contracted the flu, and then that, after giving birth to a boy who will live, Elizabeth has died.

The last part of the book is from James's point of view. Returning home without his wife, he is certain that he will be unable to live in the house or take care of his sons. He decides that Clara and her husband should raise his children. Irene arrives and disagrees, telling him that the dying Elizabeth had told her she did not want this. Irene has meantime almost reconciled with her husband (as a small child, Robert had a leg amputated after being run over by the husband's buggy). Irene now tells James that she has decided instead to stay with him and help raise her nephews.

The novel ends with Elizabeth's funeral. The doctor has reassured Robert that he was not responsible for his mother's illness, though James continues to be haunted by the possibility that if he had chosen a different train, they would have avoided infection. At the same time, he recognizes Elizabeth's ordering and determining power, and how it will continue to shape his and his sons' lives.

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