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"...not even a second helping all the way round..."

William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows tells the story of eight-year-old Peter “Bunny” Morison and his family, in a small town in Illinois during the waning years of World War I. Knowing what I already did about Maxwell’s life (the novel is highly autobiographical) and the book itself, I nearly rolled my eyes at the first scene that involved the entire Morison family, with Maxwell being almost embarrassingly heavy-handed with his foreshadowing. (Mr. Morison’s out-loud reading of a newspaper article is an almost perfect example of Chekhov’s “gun in the first act” principle.)

But soon after, Maxwell redeems himself with his lovely description of the family’s Sunday dinner. Here, Bunny is listening as Mr. Morison (a dyed-in-the-wool Republican) is ranting about President Woodrow Wilson.
Bunny twisted in his chair uncomfortably. He remembered something that he had meant to tell his mother. About Arthur Cook. When his father held forth in this way, the quiet which belonged to the dining-room seemed to have escaped to the other parts of the house. He thought of the upstairs bedrooms and how still they must be. His mother was eating her salad quite calmly, in spite of President Wilson. When she put her fork down, he might lean toward her and--but it was not easy to describe things. Especially things that had happened. For him, to think of things was to see them--schoolyard, bare trees, gravel and walks, furnace-rooms, the eaves along the south end of the building. Where among so many things should he begin?

Robert would not have had any trouble. We were playing three-deep, Robert would have said. And Arthur Cook got sick.That would have been the end of it, so far as Robert was concerned. He would have not felt obliged to explain how Arthur ran twice around the circle without tagging anybody. And how he stopped playing and said I feel funny. How he went over by the bicycle racks then, and sat down.

“At school last Friday--”

But he had spoken too loud.

“How would it be, son--”

His father let President Wilson alone for a minute and turned his entire attention to Bunny, so that he felt naked and ashamed, as if he were under a glaring light.

“--if you kept quiet until I finish what I’m saying?”

That was all. His father had not spoken unkindly. He was not sent from the table. No punishment was threatened. Nevertheless, Bunny withdrew sadly into his plate. And not even a second helping all the way round could restore his pleasure in this day.

So much is neatly captured in this single page--Bunny’s adolescent timidity and lack of confidence, his jealousy and resentment of his older brother Robert, Mr. Morison’s stern coldness. It’s rich without being excessive.

(If the publisher or copyright holder of the novel objects to my reproducing this one-page excerpt, my apologies. I will remove this immediately. But my feeling is that short excerpts like this, accompanied by my praise--I’m really enjoying the book--can’t possibly hurt your sales. If anything, it might help you sell an extra copy or two. And I’m making absolutely no money off of Maxwell’s work.)

September 6, 2015 in Books | Permalink