Maxine Swann's writing career began with a bang in 1997, when her short story "Flower Children"—her first ever published—appeared in Ploughshares, won a series of prestigious awards (including an O. Henry and a Pushcart Prize), and went on to appear in The Best American Short Stories of 1998. Now her much-anticipated second novel, Flower Children, is out—the first chapter of which is the story as it appeared in Ploughshares a decade ago.
"Flower Children," the short story, is written in the unlikely third-person plural, from the shared perspective of four young siblings—Maeve, Lu, Tuck, and Clyde. They are raised largely unsupervised in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse in the 1970s, their hippie parents in all-out rebellion against their bourgeois upbringings. Both parents have lovers who come and go in open view; the children watch their father exuberantly examine their excrement, and he confides in them how their mother makes love. Only when the children begin attending school do they realize that their home life is abnormal; they are baffled to meet their friends' parents, who are more apt to hunt game than to attend peace rallies.
Swann based Flower Children on her own childhood and distinctly captures the siblings' collective confusion and wonder. Writing from a child's point of view is no easy task—one could easily make him or her appear too simple or too sophisticated—yet Swann expertly handles the complex emotions of both boys and girls as they progress in age to adolescence and then adulthood. Most impressive is her seemingly effortless ability to juggle a wide array of characters—any given scene might involve, besides the four children, their mother, father, and grandparents, as well as the parents' lovers. Swann is a restrained, elegant writer, who lets her sentences build slowly, as if she were assembling a structure brick by brick.
I nearly emptied my pen of ink underlining passages such as this snippet of stunning description: "It was an easy tree to climb. The bark was gray and very smooth. It even had wrinkles, in the joints, like elephant skin, where a branch met the trunk. In the fall, the leaves were copper-gold. It was as if a huge torch had been lit up and was burning in the yard. The whole tree shone."
Though Flower Children is promoted as a novel (initially, I read it as a fractured narrative from multiple points of view), the book is actually linked short stories, some in the third person, others from Maeve's perspective. Different expectations are in order when reading a novel-in-stories, and for clarity the book might have been more accurately described from the get-go. Adding to the confusion is the needless repetition of information learned in earlier stories, which could have been cut to avoid redundancy. Yet despite this flaw, Swann succeeds in making Flower Children work as a whole.