Anna and the Swallow Man

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Just when you think that all the World War II stories have been told, along comes another with a new take, an unforgettable heroine and contemporary relevance to the continuing plight of refugees from Syria and other war-torn nations. 

Gavriel Savit’s teen novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, is set in Poland and Germany.  Seven-year-old Anna’s linguist father leaves her one afternoon with a family friend, a pharmacist in her Krakow neighborhood, vowing to return in a few hours. When he doesn’t, the Herr Doktor Fuchsmann loses courage and casts her out. Eventually, Anna connects with a tall, brooding stranger and they set forth on a difficult, meandering path that spans years and miles as they try to find a way to survive during wartime.

As the book continues, we learn that Anna’s father had been summoned, along with other university professors, to a meeting with the Gestapo, and was likely killed. Although Anna does not know his fate, she intuits it, just as she quickly grasps how important it is for her to melt into each new situation she faces. 

Her familiarity with many languages and her comfort speaking with adults stand her in good stead, and she and her reticent companion soon develop a strong bond. She thinks of him as the Swallow Man, thanks to his apparent ability to communicate with birds. Though he rarely speaks out loud, the Swallow Man imparts many lessons of survival, including when to lie and when to ignore her natural compassion.

This novel gets increasingly darker with each chapter, as hardship and death face the duo at every turn. With their increasing hunger, the plot takes on a surreal quality, as if to show their fading grip on reality. The unnamed Swallow Man seems more and more birdlike, pecking at dried bread and swooping through the woods that hide them. It’s clear he has his own demons, and is crushed by guilt about his past involvement in the war.

At one point, Anna befriends a gentle but bumbling Jewish musician they discover lost in the woods, but Reb Hirschl lacks his new companions’ instinct for survival and perishes. To make matters worse, the Swallow Man’s health takes a terrible turn, and Anna must make a devastating choice to secure medicine for him.

This is challenging, difficult reading, both in vocabulary and theme, appropriate for both sophisticated teen and adult audiences. Although the book includes violence and much sadness, there is an ethereal, dreamlike quality to it that is both beautiful and haunting. 

If you always intended to read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, but were intimidated by its length, this book has many fine similarities, in a smaller package.  It would be a good choice for book clubs, as there is a lot of room for interpretation and discussion.  Overall, it reads like an allegory, with nods to Polish and German folklore for flavor.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

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