Short Review: ‘Flower Children’ by Maxine Swann

Maxine Swann’s story “Flower Children” won both an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and was included in The Best American Short Stories. Nearly a decade later, that story forms the first chapter of her lyrical novel, Flower Children, about four siblings raised by their living-off-the-land hippie parents in the 1970s. Everything about this short novel is beautiful, from the occasional and (successful) experimental plural third person protagonist to the stunning descriptions of how children with unlimited freedom yearn to conform.

Consider this passage from when the children first go to school and learn penmanship and rules:

“They learn not to swear. They get prizes for obedience, for following the rules down to the last detail. They’re delighted by these rules, these arbitrary lines that regulate behavior and mark off forbidden things and they examine them closely and exhaust their teachers with questions about the mechanical functioning and the hidden intricacies of these beings, the rules …”

Gosh, you know, that whole section was delightful when I first read it. The problem with posting it here, out of context, is that it might not actually entice you into reading this book. That’s always a problem with excerpts, though.

This is the kind of writing I used to revel in. Too often these days, I read for a different kind of escape, where I want to get whisked into a story or involved with the characters. Now, don’t get me wrong – I cared a lot for the four kids in this book. But it was the writing that I most looked forward to each time I opened the book, the way that Swann let me in to observe this family and their friends, never making a judgment. I think this would be an exceptional fictional companion read for The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeanette Walls.

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