Questions and Topics for Discussion
“They’ll create a new world—one that has no relation to the world they have known—in which nothing is lied about, whispered about, and nothing is ever concealed.” (p. 6)
Maxine Swann’s Flower Children is the intimate, shocking, funny, heartrending, and exultant story of four children growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the offspring of devout hippies who turned their backs on Ivy League education in favor of experiments in communal living and a whole new world for their children.
For Maeve, Lu, Tuck, and Clyde, childhood is a blur of exploration and adventure. It is the 1970s, and their parents have embraced communal living and absolute honesty. A swing hangs in the middle of the living room. The children run free all day, dance naked in the rain, climb apple trees, ride ponies, press their faces into showers of leaves, rub mud all over their bodies and sit out in the sun to let it dry. When their parents invite other adults for skinny-dipping in the creek, the children memorize all the body parts to discuss later among themselves.
The children, in turn, find themselves impossibly at odds with their surroundings and the rural community of which they are a part, both delighted and unnerved by a life without limits. First their parents split, bringing new lovers into the family, and then puberty hits, and suddenly the ground seems to shift, and the children realize their freedoms have not come without cost to their innocence.
Haunting and celebratory by turns, Swann’s beautifully written book is both an unforgettable portrayal of a unique generation and culture, and a luminous coming-of-age story, vividly capturing the universal longings, sorrows, and joys of childhood.
ABOUT MAXINE SWANN
Maxine Swann has been awarded Ploughshares’ Cohen Award for best fiction of the year, an O. Henry Award, and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories of 1998 and 2006. Her first novel, Serious Girls, was published in 2003. Swann, who has lived in Paris and Pakistan, now lives in Buenos Aires.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSSoon after learning about God, the children “become convinced one night that their mother is a robber. They hear her creeping through the house alone, lifting and rattling things.” (p. 11) What do their fears signify?
Despite the fact that ostensibly “nothing is ever concealed,” the children are kept ignorant of their parents’ failing marriage. Do you believe it’s possible to raise children with the kind of honesty Sam and Faye hope to foster?
Maeve “kept up a wary friendship” (p. 27) with the only other child of hippies in her class at school. Why didn’t their shared upbringing and parental values bring them closer together?
Discuss the incident during which Sam deliberately provokes the punk rockers the family encounters on a trip to Washington, D.C. What do his actions say about him?
Sam deliberately hides the fact that he attended Harvard and “loves when he’s shown up to be a fool.” (p. 50) Why do you think he loves “the idea of someone ‘looking dumb’” (p.75)?
Swann’s novel is told in both first and third person. What is the effect of the shifting narrative style?
Compare Maeve’s relationship with her parents to the relationships between Sam and Faye and their parents.
“Tuck insists. He’s nine now. He knows how father is” (p.151). Reacting to their parents’ free-wheeling behavior, the children learn responsibility at a much earlier age than their peers. Is this a good thing?
Sam’s and Faye’s presence in the book—and Maeve’s consciousness—seems to recede after Sam’s clumsy attempt to seduce Pat. Was that a turning point for Maeve?
“It didn’t matter what we thought. Shirley was in charge” (p. 170). How did Sam’s behavior prepare Maeve and Lu for her bullying?
The arrival of the Kowalski boys coincides with the arrival of puberty for the girls. In what other ways does Swann link sexuality with danger and death?
What does the Rose of Sharon bush signify for Maeve?
“They invent memories. They confuse which thing happened to whom” (p. 207). Can you think of a childhood memory about which you’re not really certain? What does that memory mean to you?
In retrospect, does Maeve feel that her childhood was any better or worse than most?