In 1939, when Anna Liana’s father, a linguistics professor, is taken away in the Nazi round-up of intellectuals in Krakow, Poland, the seven-year-old girl, whose mother is dead, finds herself on her own — until a tall, mysterious stranger notices her plight. Their story unfolds in Gavriel Savit’s “Anna and the Swallow Man” (Knopf).
Savit’s gripping, thought-provoking debut novel, targeted for young adults, can be read by both teenagers and their parents to spark a lively intergenerational discussion.
Anna’s nameless protector, a man who may have been involved in questionable, clandestine war-related activities, leads her on a trek through the wilds of Poland that lasts as long as the war. On the way there are familiar fairy-tale tropes of forests and menacing fauna, and even a red dress straight out of Grimms’, but here the trails are of bloodstains instead of crumbs and the beasts are human: Germans are “Wolves” and Russians are “Bears.”
There is no shortage of heartrending stories about children torn from their families in wartime, but Gavriel Savit’s subtly complex, well-imagined characters and highly original language make this young adult novel a worthy addition to the genre.
The precocious Anna and the Swallow Man — so named by Anna for his seeming ability to communicate with birds — are fluent in several languages including Yiddish but he insists on speaking “road,” a terse language of lies and subterfuges in which they address each other as “Daddy” and “Sweetie,” as a way to keep safe. The Swallow Man’s “entire existence was like a giant, silent forefinger raised to the lips of the universe,” Anna observes.
He explains that everyone is on a quest for an endangered bird, the single remaining one of its kind, “a bird that flies and sings. And if the Wolves and Bears have their way, no one will ever fly or sing in precisely the way that it does.” If the beasts triumph, freedom will be a casualty.
Winters of sleeping outdoors, dodging gunfire, and foraging for food require a suspension of lawful behavior as the unlikely pair steal and lie their way to survival. Dead bodies are a common sight as they trudge onward, “harvesting” rations from soldiers’ corpses. When they are joined by Reb Hirschl, a pious if inebriated musician (and the only character clearly identifiable as a Jew), Anna takes his clarinet for an oddly-shaped rifle.
In one particularly disturbing scene, a pile of dead bodies at a mass extermination site no longer has the power to shock Anna as she scrounges for sustenance. However, though war does its best to sap the soul, the lengths to which Savit’s characters will go to help each other attest to the power of human connection.
Teenaged girls will sympathize with the way Anna must cope with the physical changes brought on by puberty, while in the company of men. Indeed, only one woman is ever heard from—in the form of unearthly screams, which are like “the sound produced when the universe rips open to let death come through.”
Martha Mendelsohn is a freelance writer. Her novel for young adults, “Bromley Girls,” was published last year.