if you were seven years old in a war-torn land and suddenly found
yourself all alone? Anna ended up on the sidewalk outside the apothecary
shop near her apartment in Krakow. The year was 1939, and she had only a
vague notion of the war her father had talked about.
When Anna Lania woke on the morning of the sixth of November in the year 1939—her seventh—there were several things that she did not know:—Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, p. 1; uncorrected proofs)
Anna did not know that the chief of the Gestapo in Occupied Poland had by fiat compelled the rector of the Jagiellonian University to require the attendance of all professors (of whom her father was one) at a lecture and discussion on the direction of the Polish Academy under German Sovereignty, to take place at noon that day.
She did not know that, in the company of his colleagues, her father would be taken from lecture hall number 56, first to a prison in Krakow, where they lived, and subsequently to a number of other internment facilities across Poland, before finally being transported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany.
- Setting: Poland, Germany, Russia, 1939 to about 1944
- Circumstances: After her father is taken away without warning, Anna falls in with a mysterious man she calls "Swallow Man." His strategy for survival is to keep moving, never be recognized, never make friends. He had no intention of taking Anna under his wing, but she proves useful to many of his schemes for crossing borders and avoiding arrest. A few years into their partnership, they take up with a Jewish musician, who irrevocably changes Anna and the Swallow Man's relationship. They do what they must to survive, but each one also tries to hold on to at least a piece of what he or she once was.
- Genre: literary fiction. Some might argue that this is historical fiction, which I guess is true because it's set during World War II.
- Audience: For some unfathomable reason, Knopf is billing this for ages 12+. Um, no. This is a fully adult novel. I can't imagine that children, or even teens, would grasp all there is in this book.
- Characters: Anna, a girl with no family or home; Swallow Man, who takes Anna with him on the road; Reb Hirschl, who escaped the ghetto with only his clarinet; various people and soldiers they meet on the road
- What to say: I'm not at all sure how to discuss this beautifully written and many layered novel. The whole book has a dreamlike quality to it, befitting of Anna, who was unintentionally abandoned and who then lived in near isolation from the rest of the world. All she knows is what she learned from her father and Swallow Man. The dream is, however, periodically punctured by the bald face of reality, and each hole threatens to destroy Anna and Swallow Man's cape of invisibility.
- Book club alert: The only way I can write about this book without completely giving everything away is to tell you this is the ultimate book club pick. There is so much to talk about and think about. First there's Swallow Man: Who is he, why is he in permanent hiding, why does he take care of Anna, and why does he allow Reb Hirschl to come along? Anna: The slow erosion of her innocent vision of the world around her is heartbreaking, but she seems strong, especially as she absorbs Swallow Man's lessons. But, we ask, Is she a true survivor and can she remain safe? Then there's Reb Hirschl, a character I didn't like at all. Yet his presence and attitudes and decisions will prompt discussion, especially if you disagree with him on a few key points.
- The end: Let's just say that I had to read it twice and then discuss it via email with my friend Jill of Rhapsody in Books. We mostly agreed about what happens to the characters at the end, but we saw things slightly differently. Besides the end, we discussed some of the bigger issues and implications about the characters and were definitely on similar tracks. Finally, we were solidly united in thinking this is in no way a children's book.
- Recommendation: Gavriel Savit's Anna and the Swallow Man is one of the most affecting books I've read in a long time. I can't stop thinking about it and wanting to talk about it. I almost didn't read the novel because I'm getting a little burned out on World War II stories, but this is something completely different. I urge you to give it a try and then please let me know how you interpreted the ending.