Children’s Book Blog Tour, Day 3 – Theme in The Year the Swallows Came Early

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This is the final day of the Children’s Book Blog Tour for the wonderful middle grade novel The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. If you’ve read any portion of my last two posts, you know this is a book I love.

The thing is, the more I examined The Year the Swallows Came Early to write these posts, the more I found to love. But time and space crowded from my review some of the book’s notable strengths. For example, I didn’t include any mention of Groovy’s delightful voice, reminiscent of great fiction such as To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t mention the beautiful language, so unforced, so natural to the characters, it’s easy to overlook, though it contributes to the mood, the characterization, and to the themes.

In short, I think The Year the Swallows Came Early is a book that deserves attention because it does so much so well. It’s the kind of book would-be writers would do well to study.

In that vein, I want to look at theme. I mentioned in my review that the themes in The Year the Swallows Came Early, woven into the fabric of the story, comprise one of the book’s strengths. Just a quick warning: of necessity, I will be discussing aspects of the story that might be spoilers, so please consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Earlier I mentioned “themes,” because in reality, this book says much. At the core is forgiveness, but that’s accompanied by not judging on outward appearances and by the importance of trustworthiness. Yet never are these issues delivered in such a way that the reader feels as if the author is talking to him. In fact, rarely is there mention of the key issues. So how did Ms. Fitzmaurice communicate her themes?

One way she did so was by using what I’ll call book-end symbols. Chapter 1 is entitled “Coconut Flakes” and the metaphor at the bottom of the first page explains it:

And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

While mention of coconut occurs on several other occasions, the most memorable instance is in the last chapter entitled “Caramel”:

Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

So coconut pictures the hard things in life, but by looking at chocolate candies no one can tell if the inside holds coconut or caramel.

The plot reinforces this early image. Daddy, who is taking Groovy to work with him, holding her hand, is arrested. Mama, who seems absorbed with her own needs, shows she’s concerned for Groovy’s life and heart and passion. The minor characters echo the theme. Crazy Mr. Tom is the one who delivers wisdom and who doesn’t look so crazy when he’s cleaned up and off to move into his new trailer. Frankie’s mom, who appeared to have deserted him, comes back to explain what really happened.

Even little things sharpen this point: Mama’s turning to makeovers as a solution to problems, her belief that hot weather was earthquake weather, even chocolate covered strawberries that play such a prominent role in the story.

Another way the themes are woven into the story is through what the characters learn. The importance of forgiveness comes out because of both a negative instance and a positive. The negative is two fold. First Frankie holds a grudge toward his mom, but it eats him up inside, beautifully played out by his popping Tums at times when his mother comes up in the conversation, and beautifully resolved in the end by Groovy’s supposing:

I imagine one day when his mama hugs him, he’ll put his arms around her, too. That these letters she sends are paving the way to family dinners together. That maybe the next time Frankie sees his doctor, the doctor will say, “Frankie, I have good news. You have been miraculously cured of stomachaches.”

Of course Groovy goes through her own dark night of the soul and must come to forgiveness too. The climactic scene is so rich, I wish I could post the whole thing, but here’s part:

Mr. Tom shook his head. “You don’t want what Frankie has. All that anger will turn you to stone … He reached to touch my shoulder and stared into my eyes, then squinted. Not from the sun, which was shining hard off the ocean just then. But from the story he must have seen, and the girl I knew I would become if I chose not to forgive. Because I could see that he knew all about people not showing forgiveness from his wrinkled-sheet face, the way his eyebrows slanted down on the edges, the sadness they whispered.

Again, there is more, more, more, so much more, but I think you get the idea. The themes of this story are integral to it. There would be no story without these themes. They are at the core of the plot, they are what determines how the characters develop. They are reinforced with symbolism and developed through dialogue (one of the things I’ll save to discuss another day). But never does the author turn this back on the reader or spell it out as a universal life lesson. Is it a universal life lesson? The reader must come to his own conclusions.

You won’t want to miss what the others on the tour have to say about The Year the Swallows Came Early:

13 Comments

  1. yeehaw. Great post.

    I also think this is better than a text book for wannabe writers and–dare I say it?–for many published writers. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more perfectly executed book.

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  2. […] Becky, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, posted on the themes and why they worked so well. […]

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  3. “but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.”

    This intrigued me. It illustrates the slipperiness of symbols. It all comes down to your experience of coconut flakes. I’ve never encountered any gritty dried coconut. It’s always crunchy then dissolving into chewiness. A pleasant experience, resonant of sun, surf and sand. It gives a sort of Polynesian tone to our Pacific nation.
    If you are going to use material objects as symbols, the effect depends on how much of a shared meaning your readers can bring to them. Something that is hard to predict.

    Ken Rolph
    Sydney, Australia

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  4. This was a great post. I think she did a great job tying in all these themes together–it never lost its authenticity in my opinion.

    Becky

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  5. Interesting thought Ken. I never really looked at it like that. I didn’t even stopped to think about whether I liked coconut or not. What I thought when I read it was, “Oh yeah, like when you get one of the yucky orange cream ones and you were hoping for a caramel.” I thought about how I would stick my thumb into the bottom of the candies to see what was in then and then put them back in the box if I saw the hard orange or pink or yellow cream in there. From the top they looked lovely. And I’d move on to the next, in search of caramel or chocolate cream.

    So the metaphor really worked for me.

    But if you really loved coconut, I guess I can see how it might make you not like the main character to hear her dis something you love. I wonder if there’s anyway around that. Our characters have preferences. they won’t always like everything others like.

    Interesting to think about!

    Hey, by the way, several of us on the blog tour are giving away a free copy of the book. If you’re interested you can see who all is giving them away here:

    http://paraklesis.com/childrens_publishing_news/

    thanks!

    Becky, hope you don’t mind that I spammed your readers.

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  6. What an interesting anaylsis. Thank you for your comments.

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  7. […] A Christian Worldview of Fiction […]

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  8. […] not heavy on outlines doesn’t mean her messages weren’t planned. As Becky pointed out when she looked at the beginning and ending of the novel, Fitzmaurice knew she was going to write about how sometimes things that look good on the outside […]

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  9. Sally, there’s no way round the fact that different people respond in different ways. Here’s one you probably couldn’t imagine.

    Dia Michels has written a book If My Mom Were a Platypus: Animal Babies and Their Mothers. It’s published in America. It has the word “mom” on every page, sometimes more than once. Do you think there could be an Australian edition? Nope. When Australians hear the word “mom” they want to stick their fingers down their throat and vomit. No local publisher will take it on and booksellers resist importing it. There are too many “moms” in it so it would have to be totally rewritten to be published in Australia and publishers think that would be too much work.

    I bet you could never have imagined that.

    Ken Rolph
    Sydney, Australia

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  10. […] a look at theme […]

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  11. Sounds like a truly amazing book! I just finished a book myself written by Kent Whitaker and titled, “Murder by Family.” The author writes about his terrible family tragedy- his oldest son murders his wife and youngest son! This man actually forgave his son- amazing! His forgiveness is a powerful example of the perfect love and forgiveness that God has for everybody. Love books that center around this type of genre.

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  12. Sally, I’m happy you mentioned the opportunities visitors have to win a free copy of Swallows.

    And Becky, I appreciate you stopping by. The more I wrote about this book, the more impressed I was.

    Yikes, Kathryn, I always wonder if “interesting” means “you haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about, but I’ll give you style points for creativity.” 😮 But seriously, thanks so much for stopping by during the tour. I know authors are busy, busy people, but it really does mean a lot to me as a blogger that you would stop by and give feedback.

    Ken, you’ve raised an interesting point. I don’t think readers expect characters to be exactly like them, though. Like Sally, I just substituted something (interestingly, I also substituted the fruity centers—all but cherry) that I didn’t like in my chocolate and kept right on reading.

    Bookluver, I haven’t read Kent’s book yet, but I was fortunate enough to meet him at a writer’s conference two years ago. I sat beside him at a meal, and as is often the case, we started talking about what we write. In fact, I just remembered, I wrote about meeting him here. His is a great story of forgiveness—the adult, true story version.

    Becky

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  13. […] not heavy on outlines doesn’t mean her messages weren’t planned. As Becky pointed out when she looked at the beginning and ending of the novel, Fitzmaurice knew she was going to write about how sometimes things that look good on the outside […]

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