by Amy Courage
Anna and the Swallow Man from Random House/Alfred A. Knopf is a book almost too big to write about in a blog post because of the enormous subject matter it seeks to address–the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
Thankfully, author Gavriel Savit chooses a relatable entry point for readers to enter his story–seven-year-old Anna Lania from Krakow. Anna’s father, a university professor, has just been rounded up by the Germans along with several other intellectuals, never to be seen again.
What happens to Anna over the next few years comprises the bulk of the story in this lyrical parable about innocence, friendship and survival. The Swallow Man enters Anna’s life shortly after her father’s disappearance and begins to fill in some of the gaps of protector, caretaker and teacher.
However, he’s nothing like most fathers. He leads her into the wilderness, showing her how to survive, subsisting on food from strangers, foraging and blending into the countryside. He communicates with birds with a facility that makes both Anna and the reader wonder, “Is he truly human?” He speaks several languages, conversing easily with native Poles, Russians, and Germans as they wind their way through the shifting borders between these countries at war.
I won’t answer Anna’s question about the Swallow Man’s origin and identity here. You’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself, piecing together well-laid clues subtly woven throughout the text.
I do have to mention (for the sake of parent’s awareness) that there are a few occurrences of R-rated language and situations in the story, pushing it more into the Young Adult range, though the protagonist is younger than those in many YA stories.
Thinking about these moments in context, I agree with the author that they serve to move the story forward. These are the moments when the harsh reality of war breaks through Anna’s child-like view of her circumstances, and the Swallow Man’s carefully constructed world begins to unravel. They signal the end of Anna’s innocence.
While exploring a fairly grim subject, Anna and the Swallow Man offers several moments of wonder and beauty. I didn’t mind seeing these events through Anna’s eyes. Savit’s poetic language carries you through some dark terrain, and you feel like you’re seeing the same things like a child would, maybe not fully comprehending, but aware, and open. Though she sees many dark and difficult things, Anna’s hope and will to survive remain undimmed. Her spirit of courage and curiosity make her a heroine that readers will be drawn to and relate with, despite the unfamiliar surroundings of war-torn Europe.
What other books about children who faced adult situations have you read and appreciated? Please share in the comments.