Impression vs. Engagement
Recently, reading has become more challenging. Not the reading itself, but the discovery of books – fiction and non-fiction – that engage, entertain, and enlighten. Perhaps this longing for substance is a reaction to the barrage of commerce, promotion, direct marketing in mainstream, news, social and publishing media that overwhelms us daily before finishing that first cup of coffee. Scanning the morning media blast provides a kind of pointillist information impression. Reading a good, well-written story is like catching up with a long-time, trusted friend.
I’ve noticed that the books to which I am turning are titles deeper in my decades-old backlog of novels, novellas, biographies, and histories to be read. It’s not a return to the past that draws me. It is the quality of the story-telling, writing, and editing.
I’ve just read one of these classics, first recommended to me in a college writing class. I trust my professor will forgive me for getting to it a few decades later.
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell is a modest book of 191 pages that fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. It is an absorbing story of a small family’s network of relationships that are stressed by tragedy, yet not entirely broken.
Told in three parts, we first learn about the Morison family from Bunny Morison, aged 8, beginning the day before the Armistice that will formally end World War I. His mother Elizabeth is careful to prepare him for the new baby’s arrival. The family discusses the “Spanish Flu” pandemic that is sweeping their community. Bunny develops a high fever and is sent to bed.
In part two, 13-year-old Robert, who has to deal with simultaneous needs for love and independence, and the fact that as an amputee, he is damaged and not like others and senses that Bunny has displaced him as Elizabeth’s favorite son. He rises to importance when it is he who must protect Bunny and his sick brother’s bedroom from a sparrow that entered through the open window. He is frightened for his mother when he sees her visit Bunny’s sickroom despite doctor’s orders to stay out.
Bunny recovers and Mr. and Mrs. Morison depart for Decatur where Elizabeth will have her baby. While away, Bunny and Robert will stay with their Aunt Clara. While there, they learn that their mother contracted the flu, gave birth, and died.
The third and final part of the book is told from James Morison’s perspective upon the death of his wife, Elizabeth. In the shock of deep grief, he relates the sudden disintegration of the happy family life that now seems to have no future. As Elizabeth’s wake and funeral come and go, he navigates the moving discovery that his Elizabeth was the soul, the primary force in the life now gone. It is now up to him to live up to her example, lead the way forward for the survivors, and preserve Elizabeth’s influence in their son’s lives.
Some relationships define periods in our life and become touchstones of our personal evolution. There are also relationships that with a lifetime’s perspective, define our existence, who we became, and what we did with our time here. James Morison discovered to his surprise that Elizabeth was more influential than any other person in his life. Only by losing her did he ultimately have to confront himself, not just in grief but in every role to come in his remaining years.
THEY CAME LIKE SWALLOWS was William Maxwell’s second novel, published in 1937.