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.


Maxwell's beautifully observed, and perhaps partly autobiographical, novel depicts a mother's role in her family and the pain caused by her death (Maxwell grew up in the Midwest, and his own mother died in 1918 of influenza). The book's title and epigraph come from W. B. Yeats's poem, "Coole Park, 1929": "They came like swallows and like swallows went, / And yet a woman's powerful character / Could keep a Swallow to its first intent . . ."

What James realizes at the end of the novel is that even after her death, his wife's quiet influence is the center that will hold his family together. This echoes Bunny's more childish, but perhaps more profound, recognition much earlier, that even the pattern in the living room carpet rearranged itself around the point where his mother's foot rested. There seem to be echoes here of Mrs. Ramsay's role in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (see annotation in this data base).

The novel is one of very few depicting the "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918. The perspective, limited to that of one family, provides a vivid sense of the personal effects of the crisis, from Robert's frustration at not being able to escape to school, to James's nightmarish recollection of having to get onto a train dangerously crowded with potentially contagious strangers.

The randomness of infection is balanced against both Robert and James's fear of personal responsibility for the illness of loved ones, and the pandemic is itself set against a wider medical background, encompassing the amputation of Robert's leg, a grandfather's slow death from infection after an animal bite, and the understated account of Elizabeth's two difficult labors, necessitating the fatal trip to a city hospital so that she can give birth more safely. And the flu is itself introduced through the eyes of Bunny, the first to become ill, whose perception of the complex and often hostile world about him is heartbreakingly precise.


Maxwell was the fiction editor of the New Yorker for 40 years.


Harper & Brothers

Place Published

New York