Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
It is 1939 in Krakow, Poland. Seven-year-old Anna’s linguist father and other educators are called to meet with the Gestapo. When Father doesn’t return, the man baby-sitting Anna becomes fearful for his own safety and leaves her out in the street. There, she meets a strange, lanky man who can talk to birds. She follows him, and they begin a four-year period of wandering through the war-ravaged land.
Anna believes her new protector is wise, like King Solomon. When she tells him this, he says she must never call him that. She must never call him any name, because names are dangerous. If you have a name, you can be found. It is imperative that they are not discovered, he says. He even makes her forfeit her own name. He will call her Sweetie, and she will call him Daddy. He allows her to call him Swallow Man, which sounds a little like Solomon, when they are alone.
The two wander as nomads through the Polish countryside. Swallow Man, like Anna’s father, is fluent in many languages. This allows him to engage different people and get the things he and Anna need along the way. He makes up stories about himself to tell the people they meet, and Anna plays along.
One day in the woods, Anna meets a Jewish man named Reb Hirschl. He is jovial and free-spirited, the antithesis of Swallow Man. Anna is afraid if she and Swallow Man don’t help Reb Hirschl, he will die on his own in the war-torn land. Swallow Man allows Reb Hirschl to join their party, against his better judgement. The two men remain at odds, caught in a subtle battle for Anna’s youthful affections. While the mysterious Swallow Man hasn’t shared his history with Anna, it’s clear that he’s running from something.
He says he doesn’t want to be an instrument of death. Reb Hirschl’s Jewish heritage causes him to face prejudice at several points on the trip. Swallow Man and Reb Hirschl come to an unspoken understanding, though not quite a friendship.
The trio meets a peddler one day. He offers them whatever they want from his packs if he can take Anna for a walk and enjoy her company. Anna’s protectors send him away, angered by his lewd intentions. That night, Swallow Man finds the peddler and kills him.
When Reb Hirschl finds out, he and Swallow Man have a heated argument about the murder. Reb Hirschl believes life is sacred. Swallow Man argues that the peddler knew where they were and would likely have returned in the night for Anna. Reb Hirschl decides he must leave Swallow Man’s company. The Jew’s dead body is found a week later.
Anna and Swallow Man continue their journey, sleeping in forests, stealing food and doing whatever is necessary to survive. They often search the pockets of dead soldiers along the road. From the beginning, Anna has watched Swallow Man take pills several times a day. He has managed to get refills a few times before, but he is completely out of money now. After the pills run out, Swallow Man’s personality begins to change. Both he and Anna are fragile and thin from their travels and lack of food. Swallow Man becomes increasingly unstable mentally. The two take up residence in an abandoned manor.
Swallow Man’s grasp on reality is slipping fast, so Anna takes his pill bottle to a pharmacy in a nearby town. When the pharmacist learns Anna doesn’t have money, he calls her into his back room. There, he asks her to undress and stand in various poses. After she has done this, he gives her the pills and tells her to leave. She feels strange and humiliated but is thankful to have the medicine.
She and Swallow Man take to the road again, and he slowly comes back to his senses. He takes Anna to see one of his wealthy former acquaintances, and he strikes a secret bargain with the man. Swallow Man puts Anna on a boat, and he is gone forever. As a fisherman takes Anna far away, she sees a bird she believes may be Swallow Man in a transformed state. She is sad, but she has hope that a new, better land lies ahead.
Soldiers hurt and bully an old man because he’s Jewish. Reb Hirschl is also a Jew and often faces prejudice because of his nationality. He prays Hebrew prayers frequently and teaches some to Anna when they encounter the dead. He is passionate about the value of human life, claiming no one has the authority to take life but God.
Two boys believe Swallow Man is the demon Boruta from Polish lore. Boruta can change forms, sometimes into the form of a bird. While there is no confirmation Swallow Man is anything but a human, a bird does follow Anna at the end of the story as she sails away.
Anna’s father treated her like an adult in terms of his words and respectfulness. He also made her feel protected. Swallow Man and Reb Hirschl teach and protect Anna like a daughter.
The Lord’s name is used in vain once. The f-word appears twice. Anna and her fellow travelers take food and other items from dead bodies to survive. At one point, they come upon a mass grave full of bodies piled on each other with heads and limbs bent at unnatural angles.
A peddler offers Swallow Man and Reb Hirschl whatever goods they like from his inventory if they’ll let him take a walk with Anna. He insinuates he wants her sexually. When a pharmacist sees Anna can’t pay for medicine, he takes her into his back room. He doesn’t touch her or himself, but he instructs her to stand naked in various poses.
Drinking: Reb Hirschl drinks as much alcohol as he can get his hands on. This is a point of contention between him and Swallow Man, who believes it’s important they keep their wits about them in such a dangerous time. Being around Anna makes Reb Hirschl want to be less reliant on alcohol. Two boys who stumble upon Anna and Swallow Man’s hiding place are drinking liquor.
Theft: Swallow Man steals passports and identities. The group steals food and other items to survive on their journey.
Lying: Swallow Man frequently creates stories to tell the people they encounter. He explains to Anna that it’s like speaking another language to survive and communicate in desperate circumstances. He calls the language road.
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