Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is one of the more quiet WW II books I have read, but it is also one of the most beautiful. Anna Lania is seven years old at the beginning of this story. She lives in Krakow, Poland with her father. He is a professor of linguistics at the university, and so he and Anna speak several different languages.
Anna thought that each of the languages her father spoke had been tailored, like a bespoke suit of clothes, to the individual person with whom he conversed. French was not French; it was Monsieur Bouchard. Yiddish was not Yiddish; it was Reb Shmulik. Every word and phrase of Armenian that Anna had ever heard reminded her of the face of the little old tatik who always greeted her and her father with small cups of strong, bitter coffee.
Every word of Armenian smelled like coffee.
One day in November of 1939, Anna’s father does not return home from work. Unbeknownst to Anna, he has been taken by the Germans. She has been spending the day at Herr Doktor Fuchsmann’s shop. After several days, the formerly friendly shop-owner doesn’t want to take care of her anymore. So it is outside of his shop that she meets the Swallow Man. Rather, she sees him first:
The man was tall and exceedingly thin. His suit, brown wool and in three pieces, must’ve been made specifically for him…He carried an old physician’s bag, the brown leather worn a bit lighter than the color of his dark suit. It had brass fittings, and on the side of the bag was the monogram SWG in a faded red that must’ve originally been the color of his dark necktie. A tall black umbrella rode between the two handles of the bag, stacked on its top, despite the clearness of the sky.
Anna and the Swallow Man share an affinity for speaking languages—for changing into different people as they change their native tongue. They form a small team, and together, crossing the Polish countryside during the throes of World War II. Who can be trusted? As the reader meets each character he or she is filled with either a sense of delight and love, or pure terror and dread. Who is the Swallow Man? He tells Anna: “to be found is to be gone forever.” One can only stay hidden for so long.
Gavriel Savit proves he is a master of words. Words, and language, play a large role in Anna’s story. This book asks the big questions from a child’s eye-view: what is war and what is death? It also asks the most inner question of the self: how do we know who we are? Does our language determine that?
Anna and the Swallow Man is a beautiful story that soars with gravity and magical-realism. As the snow falls, it will be easy to imagine Anna walking in the shadow of the Swallow Man in the snowy Polish countryside, 1939. This book is a young adult novel that teens and adults alike will enjoy.