We’re starting our review/giveaway for The Dreaming of Books Giveaway Hop one day early. For this hop, we’re featuring Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit. It’s a novel I fell in love with when I read it and it’s getting tons of buzz in the book world, even though it won’t be officially published for a couple more weeks.
Anna and the Swallow Man takes place in Poland during World War II. Although its main character is a child, it is a novel that will appeal to adults as well as readers from middle school up. I couldn’t wait until it was published to share it with you. If it looks like your kind of read, be sure to enter our giveaway or link to get a copy for yourself and/or for an age-appropriate reader you think might like it.
Seven-year-old Anna lives with her father in Krakow, Poland in 1939. Her father is a linguistics professor at the local university, a well-respected man, and Anna loves him with all of her heart. It’s not unusual when he leaves her with a storekeeper neighbor. What is unusual is when he doesn’t come back to get her and when the neighbor won’t let her stay there anymore. She can’t understand why either of those things happen.
“He [her father] treated her like an adult – with respect, deference, and consideration – but somehow, simultaneously, he managed to protect and preserve in her the feeling that everything she encountered in the world was a brand-new discovery, unique to her own mind.
Anna’s father was a professor of linguistics at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and living with him meant that every day of the week was in a different language. By the time Anna had reached the age of seven, her German, Russian, French, and English were all good, and she had a fair amount of Yiddish and Ukrainian and a little Armenian and Carpathian Romany as well.
Her father never spoke to her in Polish. The Polish, he said, would take care of itself.”
“In the morning, Herr Doktor Fuchsmann brought Anna a little food. It comforted her, but by lunchtime it became clear that he meant not to keep her around. He was very apologetic, told Anna that he would send her father straight along if he came back to the shop for her, but that he just couldn’t have her in his shop anymore.
Everything he said made sense. Who was she to argue?…Anna sat in front of the [locked] door to her apartment for a very long time. There was still a part of her that was sure her father was on his way back to her, and she tried as best she could to prune back her worry and encourage this certainty to grow in its place. Surely, he would be back soon.
But he did not come.”
The only problem is that no seven-year-old can hide forever. At some point you get too hungry and thirsty, and need to come out of hiding. What is Anna to do? Why hasn’t her father come back to her? Where has he gone? The truth? Her father was part of a Nazi round-up and purge of Poland’s intellectuals…her father isn’t coming back, at least not in this lifetime. Anna, being only seven, doesn’t know this. She knows her father has never left her and would never do anything to harm her. She also knows she has to survive somehow until he can come back and find her, but how? Seven-year-olds don’t have the best survival skills, even very smart ones like Anna who speak several languages.
And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He’s a very odd man in his appearance and behavior, a very regimented man in many ways but also a very creative one. She’s drawn to him immediately and he takes her under his wing (no pun intended). She knows he’s not her father and she can’t expect him to behave like her father but they do share some characteristics. The Swallow Man can speak many languages fluently, just like her father. He’s very smart and clever, just like her father. And he seems able to talk his way out of any situation, so maybe no one will take him away from Anna like they did her father. In her desperate need to survive until she can find her father or he can find her, Anna reasons that the Swallow Man is probably her best chance.
“No, the thin man was not like the Alder King, though he didn’t lack in similarity. But it would’ve been a mistake to understand him solely in that way. He was far too good, and he smiled and laughed, and he summoned swallows…
’You’re Solomon,’ said Anna again.
He [the Swallow Man] shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not. That name isn’t safe. No name is.’
This introduced a nagging, itchy fear to the back of Anna’s head. She had a name. In fact, she had many.
‘Names are ways for people to find us,’ said the tall man. ‘If you keep a name, people know whom to ask after. And if people know whom to ask after, they can find out where you’ve been, and that brings them one step closer to finding you. We don’t want to be found.’
The thin man shook his head. ‘No.’”
Oh, and did I mention that among the many languages the Swallow Man can speak is Bird? Yes, he can communicate with the birds in the forest. When he talks to them in their language, they come to him and light on his finger or do his bidding. It’s the most miraculous thing Anna has ever seen. She didn’t even know there was a language called Bird until she met him. If birds trust him that much, she reasons that she probably can too. That he is at least more likely to protect her than not. She can only hope that she’s right.
So Anna follows him off into the wilderness of Poland, away from the invading soldiers from Germany and from Russia, whom he calls the Wolves and the Bears respectively. They give both wild-animal-like humans as wide a berth as possible. When they can’t avoid encountering them at border crossings or check points, Anna and her protector develop an act that convinces the wolf or bear soldiers that these are just two normal citizens like the soldiers – two people who speak their language fluently and appear to be just like all other loyal citizens. It’s a tight-wire act with incredibly deadly repercussions if anything isn’t perfectly done but it works…for years it works.
And then one day Anna meets a strange man when the Swallow Man has left for a while, a boisterous runaway Jewish man so hearty, loud, and jovial – so unlike the Swallow Man – that she is immediately drawn to him. For the first time, she disobeys the Swallow Man’s rigid edicts and befriends this kind lost man. And that is when she sees a side of the Swallow Man she’s never seen before – a dark and terrible side – and she begins to wonder if she’s ever really known him at all.
What lessons will Anna learn as she matures into a young woman during such a horrific time and in such an insane place? What will become of Anna, the Swallow Man, and the lost Jewish man in a world seemingly gone mad? Will any of them survive or will Anna’s decision to befriend the Jewish man spell their doom?
Anna and the Swallow Man takes place over a period of years, throughout the German and Russian invasions of Poland, and the entirety of World War II. The entire novel is seen through Anna’s eyes. We experience Anna growing into a woman. I can’t imagine what it would be like to roam a war-torn countryside in constant fear from age seven up. It definitely would change who you are and how you view the world from that day forward, even if you do “play pretend” a lot. At the same time, we see the flexibility of children to adapt and survive. That Anna is still able to see the world as a magical place is such a saving grace, and so in keeping with being a child. The three characters who are the focus of this novel are all complex. The Swallow Man is quite possibly the most complex, although there are hints about some of the things that make him appear so unusual as the novel progresses.
Gavriel Savit has written an amazingly beautiful debut novel in Anna and the Swallow Man – its prose and story are lyrical even while showing us the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a growing child. Once I began reading, I could not stop. I was completely swept up into the story in a way I did not expect. I’ve been swept up into stories before but never like this. I definitely recommend Anna and the Swallow Man, for adults as well as grades 8 and up. It’s a beautiful story even when it’s heartbreaking – and it is also a story of hope.
Can’t wait to read it? Anna and the Swallow Man is available from your favorite online bookseller, so just click on the link to go get it!
I’d love to get your comments on Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel Savit, and/or this review.
One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 1/28/2016, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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