CHILD narrators are the proxies of choice for memoir fiction. Their wide eyes and fresh observations offer an immediacy, an ingenuousness, that authors can infuse with adult wisdom. But they're hard to pull off. The child must either see things guilelessly or be recalled as a younger self. Alas, authors often foist too much insight on a child who is reporting in the present tense.
Maxine Swann is keen on this youthful perspective, having employed it in her semi-autobiographical stories and her first novel, "Serious Girls." Her new novel, "Flower Children," relies mostly on a young girl to chronicle a deliriously hippie-like upbringing. The book is full of the visceral pleasures and anxieties of childhood -- the tree-climbing, treasure-collecting, knee-scabbing of it all. Chapters vary in tense and person -- opening in the third, drifting into the first -- like a mosaic of related short stories, but the viewpoint is most often Maeve's, the second oldest of four young children of an idealistic, pot-smoking farming couple in rural Pennsylvania who will soon separate.
Maeve remarks on their father's loopy girlfriends, their mother's rugged swains, a passive-aggressive grandmother and the sullen young boys who deliver first kisses. There's no arc here, rather a strong sense of time and place -- but Maeve herself seems unreal. "For cocktails at our grandmother's we always have to dress.... Our mother always brings her dress-up clothes, too, but they're still hippie clothes. With our grandmother, she's always between obedience and rebellion." Is that a child's insight? The recollection of an older woman? Neither feels right.
The book has its strengths, opening with Swann's award-winning title story. These flower children "want to know about everything they see or can't see, frost and earthworms, and who will decide when it rains, and are there ghosts and are there fairies, and how many drops and how many stars, and although they kill things themselves, they want to know why anything dies and where the dead go and where they were waiting before they were born." They run naked, collect frogs, taunt buzzards, read voraciously. "These children will be different," the parents muse. "They'll learn only the large things."
The father exudes the playful recklessness of an irreverent romantic. In the car, where they spend a lot of time, he is forever mouthing off, speeding, falling asleep. His girlfriend Lonnie, a flirty "exotic bird" with dyed-blond hair, is a breezy antidote to all the countercultural posturing.
But Swann has something to say, and a child may not be the proper conduit. The author seems most comfortable writing in the third person: "[W]hy replicate this world that has gone? Because it was so perfect? But it was not. But it was. Perfect because it was the world before the world changed." Sometimes the poignancy of a childhood remembered is best captured in retrospect.