The novel begins at the start of World War II in 1939. Poland was invaded months earlier and operation Sonderaktion Krakau, targeting Krakow's intellectuals and academics is underway.
On November 6th, 1939, seven year old Anna Lania's father is summoned to a meeting of all the professors of the Jagiellonian University to discuss the direction of the Polish academy under the direction of the German occupiers. Professor Lania is an linguistics professor at the university. As a result, he spends a great deal of time speaking to Anna in many different languages. By the age of seven she has learned to speak German Russian, French, English as well as a bit of Yiddish, Ukrainian, Armenian and Carpathian Romany.
Anna has been left alone before by her father before and if he's to be away for a lengthy period, in the company of an adult. This time she is left with Herr Doktor Fuchsmann around eleven o'clock in the morning. By the time it came to close the pharmacy, Anna's father still had not returned. What Anna does not know is that her father, like other Polish intellectuals will be taken away to a prison in Krakow, then to various internment camps in Poland and finally to the Sachenhausen concentration camp in Germany where he will die.
But in early November, all Anna knows is that after spending the day at Herr Doktor Fuchsmann's shop, she has no where to go and no father to return home to. Herr Doktor fuchsmann refuses to take her to his home so Anna spends the night sleeping beneath the counter of his shop. In the morning Anna is given something to eat and then taken to her father's apartment where she is abandoned by Herr Doktor Fuchsmann. The door is locked and so Anna is forced to wait in front of the apartment door. That evening she returns to Herr Doktor Fuchsmann's shop to wait for her father. It is outside the pharmacy that Anna first encounters the tall thin man whom she comes to know as the Swallow Man.
Like Anna, this unknown man speaks German, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish as he questions her about who she is and if she is alright. When she begins to cry, he summons a swallow with a series of chirps and whistles. Anna responds to all of the man's questions in the language he asked each in and then when he tells her to stay out of sight, Anna believes he is telling her to follow him. Anna follows the man out of Krakow and into the fields outside the city. After Anna warns the thin man and likely saves him from a Polish farmer, he tells her he will take her back to Krakow and find someone to care for her. He tells her "It is not good for a girl to be without a father, these days." Anna asks the Swallow Man, "...But is it any better for a father to be without a daughter?" This leads the Swallow Man to reconsider and decides that Anna will travel with him. However, he sets up several rules: she can ask him all the questions she has but only when they are alone, she must follow him as a river follows its riverbank. He also tells Anna that names are not safe because "Names are ways for people to find us,... If you keep a name, people know whom to ask after. ...We don't want to be found." The Swallow Man explains to Anna that the reason her father never returned is because someone knew his name and was able to find him. He tells her he will call her "Sweetie" and she will call him "Daddy". He tells her when they are alone he is to be called Swallow Man and she can use her name, Anna.
As they travel around Poland, the Swallow Man begins to teach Anna how to survive. First he teaches her practical lessons like "People are dangerous. And the more people there are in one place, the more dangerous the place becomes." and that "Human beings are the best hope in the world of other human beings to survive." He also begins to teach Anna a new language which he calls "Road". In "Road there's more than one way to say everything...It's very simple to translate something into Road, but it's very difficult to translate anything back." An example of the language of Road is the Swallow Man's descriptions of the German and Russian soldiers they meet in their travels. He tells Anna that the soldiers look like young men but in reality the Germans are Wolves who are part of a cruel pack while the Russians are Bears who are solitary but proud. Both are determined to harm people. The Swallow Man also teaches Anna how to survive in the forest. "...the Swallow Man knew well which roots were good to eat, which berries were safe, what fruits yielded a good nut or seed, which leaves left a sweet taste in the mouth and which a bitter..."
As she follows him through forest, hills and plains and wetlands, Anna finally asks the Swallow Man "Where are we going?" He tells her they are on a "mission of crucial scientific significance" to save an endangered species of bird of which there is only one left. "The Wolves and the Bears desperately want to find the bird, because it tastes delicious; and because it's the last, they think that whoever eats it will become very, very strong." The Swallow Man tells Anna that the Wolves and the Bears have eaten all of this bird but one and he's "going to make sure the last one stays safe." through the use of their knowledge, observation, patience and time.
Although Anna and the Swallow Man do their best to avoid people, a chance encounter in the forest changes their situation in ways neither could have anticipated. Anna meets a man in the forest who appears to be kissing his rifle. When she asks him what he is doing with his rifle he explains to her that his "rifle" is actually a clarinet which he cannot play because the reed is cracked. Reb Hirschl "plays" his clarinet for Anna. The Swallow Man does not want to having anything to do with Reb Hirschl and takes Anna away from him. He admits to Anna that he does not want Reb Hirschl to come with them because he is a Jew. But Anna argues with the Swallow Man insisting that they should help Reb Hirschl who likely will not survive in the forest alone. When Anna attempts to sneak back to Reb Hirschl to bring him bread because she is worried about him surviving, the Swallow Man relents and brings the Jewish man to where they are camped.
Anna, the Swallow Man and Reb Hirschl travel throughout Poland and as the war progresses and Operation Barbarossa begins, the three struggle to survive. Mass graves, dead soldiers, unexpected death and the sickening of the Swallow Man force Anna to make difficult choices but in the end lead to unexpected redemption and rescue.
Anna and The Swallow Man is an unusual story that is much different from the usual fare offered to young adult readers. as it offers a more interpretive than literal story. Told in third person narrative, the novel on one layer tells the story of Anna, a seven year old abandoned when her father is caught in the Nazi net and who remains strangely unconcerned about her father's whereabouts. It is a fairy tale about surviving in an world filled with evil, as fairy tales often are.
Although Anna and The Swallow Man is historical fiction, the focus is not so much on events of history - although they are referenced and form the backdrop for the story - as it is about relationships. The main focus is on the relationship between Anna and the Swallow Man who refuses to share his true identity with her. While her name is important to Anna, the Swallow Man convinces her that names are dangerous because the lead to people being able to find other people during this dangerous time. This is the first the reader suspects that the Swallow Man might be someone of importance whom the Nazis may be searching for. Given the background information in the opening chapter about the German
operation Sonderaktion Krakau and the description of the Swallow Man
who is wearing a three piece suit and carrying a physicians bag, it is
likely he is part of the Polish intelligentsia and therefore attempting
to escape the Nazis.But for Anna, giving up her name is difficult because her identity is tied up with her name.
Because of the upheavals in Anna's life, she is skilled at speaking back to people in the language they speak to her whether it be German or Polish or French or Russian. So when she meets the Swallow Man, she finds his language to be "an erratic, shimmering thing" and that he does not say what he means. Anna quickly adapts, since she is versatile in languages and so when the tall thin man tells her merely to "stay out of sight...For as long as you can." Anna interprets this to mean that she is to follow him as he heads out of Krakow and into the forest. The Swallow Man eventually teaches Anna his language which he calls "Road" because "The world as it exists is a very, very dangerous place". In "Road" there is no way to lie - it's a matter of interpretation and the words used. Just as the Swallow Man teaches Anna to survive in the forest, he also teaches her to survive in the wilds of a world at war. To that end he frames danger in wartime which comes primarily from soldiers by identifying them as predatory animals. The Swallow Man refers to Germans as Wolves who are part of a cruel, angry pack while Russians are Bears who are solitary. He also tells Anna that they are on a mission to find an endangered species of bird which the Wolves and Bears wish to find a devour because "it's the last and they think that whoever eats it will become very, very strong." This bird is special because it flies and sings in a unique way. Readers will have their own interpretations as to whom or what the Swallow Man is referring to in these passages. It would seem that the Swallow Man is teaching Anna who the prime threats are to her survival during war and how she is to stay alive during this dangerous time.
Later in the novel the focus shifts to the relationships Reb Hirschl has with both Anna and the Swallow Man. Reb Hirschl is a character who brings some measure of delight into
Anna's difficult life; he brings music, poetry and even play. Unlike the
Swallow Man who is tasked with keeping them alive, Reb can afford to be
a source of joy in a more open way. In the case of Reb Hirschl and the Swallow Man, although neither of them likes the other, they do develop a relationship of "cooperative understanding" - " ...in which one of the two men would forgo his own strongly held way of being and embrace the others as if giving a moment of his life to his opposite in tribute."
Not all the men Anna meets are as good-hearted as Reb Hirschl. The Peddler whom they encounter in the forest is a creepy man who attempts to convince the Swallow Man to let him use Anna sexually. For Anna's safety, the Swallow Man murders the Peddler later in the night when he is asleep. But he also admits that Reb Hirschl is correct that the Peddler may have recognized him and this is the main reason he was killed. The Swallow Man tells Reb Hirschl that if he is discovered, the world will burn. Reb Hirschl does not accept the Swallow Man's explanation and leaves them.
Anna and the Swallow Man spend most of the novel in the forest sequestered away from events happening in Poland and Russia. Their fears are confirmed when they meet the Peddler who provides them with horrific news of the ghetto liquidations and the camps that are killing Jews. After they are caught up in Operation Barbarossa which sees the Germans conduct a lightning advance into Russia, the full reality of war begins to confront them. Daily Anna, Reb and the Swallow Man encounter dead soldiers whom they scavenge so as to be able to survive. For Anna this is a fact of life which she quickly adapts to. "It was not pleasant to harvest from the dead -- particularly the recently dead, whose warmth thwarted Anna's efforts at stoicism -- but soon she learned not to look at their faces, and if she interacted with only their clothing and their kits, she didn't have to wonder about what their names had been..." Anna learns from Reb to treat the dead bodies with dignity as she watches him look the dead in the face, apologize to them and pray over them.
When the Swallow Man becomes ill due to a lack of his medication and he is badly wounded in protecting Anna, she manages to walk him to a German field camp. Anna does so despite being taught the Germans are Wolves set on devouring the endangered species - a bird because she remembers what the Swallow Man taught her that "Human beings are the best hope in the world of other human beings to survive." Overcoming her fear of the "Wolves" she begs for help, recognizing that they are also humans who can help. The doctor Wolf, so desensitized to the death of humans, he doesn't see the humanity of the Swallow Man - he's just a wound to him. "The soldier was only doing what he'd done a hundred times before -- treating the wound and ignoring the man." Perhaps the endangered species is a human being who can see and feel the humanity of others.
Author Gavriel Savit identifies Anna and the Swallow Man as a fairytale "about the magical uncertainties of war and childhood, and it aims to ask more questions than it answers." Savit certainly has accomplished this with his thought-provoking novel. Marketed as a young adult novel this can certainly be enjoyed by adults and older children, although there is some disturbing content for younger readers.
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2016