They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell is a book about an Illinois family living through the time of the Spanish Flu. It follows the lives and happenings of two sons, Bunny and Robert, the father, James, and the mother, Elizabeth. Early on, all the characters gravitate toward Elizabeth as the glue that holds their house together. Bunny is young enough to have an innocent love toward her, Robert sees her as someone to protect, and James doesn’t see a life without her. The story follows the boys initially as their schools are let out due to the epidemic. Bunny listens in to James reading the news, tries playing with some of James’s toys, and at one point is saved by his brother when other kids are beating him up. Bunny then becomes sick with the flu, where he is cared for by his mother and Irene. He gets better, but it takes him a while and there is a scene where Robert offers to show Bunny his figurines but doesn’t let him play with them (which I thought worked well in showing the dynamic between the two). Elizabeth is expecting a child, so her and James rush off to another town with a doctor who, it’s hinted at will most likely perform a C-section. As they are having the child, Bunny and Robert are taken to their aunt’s house where Robert gets sick, and Robert and Bunny fight about playing with each other’s toys. Finally, after having the child, Elizabeth comes down with the flu, and eventually dies from pneumonia. James returns to their home and is utterly broken. The news is broken to the children and somehow James must find a way to continue caring for Bunny, Robert, and now a new baby. Near the end, James compilates selling everything, giving the boys to the aunt, and leaving. However, as a ray of hope, Irene suggests she could help care for the children and be there for James. The novel ends with James and Robert both looking at Elizabeth’s body in the casket, where James asks Robert, “’You won’t forget your mother, will you…’”.
In addition to this main plot, there is also a minor plot that unravels once it’s revealed that Robert lost a leg years before and now, he wears a prosthetic. He lost it when he was riding along on Boyd’s car, Irene’s husband, fell off, and his leg was run over. There is a tension between James, Boyd, and Irene that is finally reflected upon when James says that Elizabeth never forgot about that incident.
The story is broken into three parts, the first of which follows Bunny, the youngest child. Then it breaks off following Robert up until he hears that his mother has died. And the last part is focused on James and how he is dealing with his wife’s death. It’s an interesting progression to have the narrative follow each character, as if to show they slowly lose their innocence and must mask their emotions. It was a sad novel, but I thought the relationship between Robert and Bunny were authentic and at times humorous.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.