Anna and the Swallow Man

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Anna and the Swallow Man Book Poster Image
Exquisite tale of Polish girl in WWII shows horrors of war.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 1 review

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The horrific events of World War II in Poland form the backdrop for Anna and the Swallow Man's wanderings, which take them to Kraków and Gdansk, as well as eastward behind the invading German army; readers may wish to follow on a map. Since both title characters are fluent in many languages, readers will also pick up words and phrases in German, Yiddish, and more. Perhaps more important, author Savit devotes much attention to the notion of each language defining its own world, rules, and way of being, which will resonate with language students.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of friendship, survival, and self-sacrifice for your loved ones, even when things are terrible enough that all your choices are bad.

Positive Role Models & Representations

In her previous life, people often called Anna "precocious" for her ability to ask probing questions and understand things beyond her years. As the story unfolds, she develops from helpless child to strong, protective friend, showing courage and selflessness. The Swallow Man is more ambivalent; there's a lot he doesn't reveal about himself, and there's often no telling whether what he says is true, as role-playing is an essential survival skill for him and Anna. They steal food, clothing, and other necessities to stay alive. He's also ruthless in dealing with threats to their safety. But at the same time, he's true to his own code of ethics. When Hirschl, an escapee from the Jewish Ghetto, joins them, he notes that although the Swallow Man doesn't have enough food for one person, he scrupulously divides it into three equal portions for Anna, Hirschl, and himself. Hirschl teaches Anna to say a blessing over each body they encounter.

Violence

Violence is inescapable in this story, which begins as Anna's father is taken by the Nazis and she herself wonders, in a 7-year-old way, whether Yiddish still exists since all the Jews in Kraków have disappeared; another character seems to have knowledge to help build a weapon that will destroy the world. In the course of their wanderings, the two companions witness many atrocities, including massacres whose victims are tossed into a mass grave, and another character hanged from a tree; they scavenge items from the bodies of dead soldiers to survive. An adult character kills to protect Anna and himself and teaches her the relevant skills. A stranger plans to abduct and rape Anna.

Sex

As Anna gets older, she begins to attract unwelcome attention from male strangers. In a brief scene, she poses naked for a stranger to get much-needed medicine for a loved one.

Language

One "f--k!" and one "f--king," both in the same speech by an evil character and clearly meant to be shocking in context. Otherwise no language issues. Brief discussion of the need to relieve yourself in the bushes and the embarrassment of being discovered.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters smoke and drink, and in one scene drunken German soldiers abuse an old Jewish man. In winter, kids and adults sometimes drink liquor to stay warm. Reb Hirschl, a klezmer musician, admits that he likes liquor as much as he likes music.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Anna and the Swallow Man, by first-time novelist Gavriel Savrit, is a tour de force of consciously literary style, deep thoughts, and startling insight. As the two title characters (she, a 7-year-old orphan as the story begins; he, a mysterious figure who speaks many languages, calls birds from the air, and kills with swift ruthlessness) wander through the cities, countryside, and battlefields of Poland in World War II, they're often in situations where there are no good options, but their bond stays strong. There's plenty of darkness, as the Nazis are killing Jews (such as the old man with whom Anna used to talk in Yiddish), intellectuals (such as Anna's professor father), and anyone else who gets in their way. The two witness atrocities and massacres and often strip the dead bodies of soldiers for food and clothing. Through it all, with terrible dilemmas, they stick to their codes of ethics and struggle to do the right thing. An evil character says "f--k" twice in a speech meant to shock.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byDonna G. April 15, 2016

Mature content

A historical fiction novel dealing with the horrors of the holocaust. Anna abandoned by her local community is left to survive on her own. She forms a bond with... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byMercurio April 17, 2016

A great historical fiction book.

This book is very good. I would recommend it, as it has a various amount of historical background knowledge to support the story it's self.

What's the story?

Anna leads a rich, if unusual, life: Her father is a linguistics professor at Poland's oldest university, and every day of the week they speak a different language. Then one day in November of 1939, when Anna is 7 years old, her father goes off to a meeting from which he never returns (the narrator tells us that along with the rest of the faculty, he's been taken by the Nazis, who are rounding up Polish intellectuals, to a concentration camp, where he will soon perish). As she's sitting in the street trying to decide what to do, a strange, well-dressed man catches her attention, especially when he speaks most of the languages her father did -- and also the language of birds, who answer his call. The two form an odd connection, and as World War II engulfs the region with terror and death, ANNA AND THE SWALLOW MAN do their best to stay out of its way.

Is it any good?

Gavriel Savit's stunning literary novel ponders deep mysteries, ethical dilemmas, death, and survival as a little girl grows up wandering a war-torn world with a mysterious stranger. The unusual, sometimes dreamlike narrative voice will resonate with serious readers, as will its tendency to ponder deep questions, from ethical choices in impossible situations to the role of language in shaping the world. A working actor, first-time author Savit writes confidently about how it feels to constantly change your reality as needed. These same qualities make Anna and the Swallow Man an unlikely fit for readers who prefer a more action-oriented style with issues and values clearly defined. But for those willing to engage with its world, it offers glimmers of enduring, unlikely good and beauty even in the darkest moments, as when the two title characters find a murdered friend's body in the woods:

"He put his lips together and called as he had done all those many, many lifetimes ago in Kraków, and sure enough, a bright blue-and-orange swallow flitted down to his finger. Gingerly the Swallow Man lifted the lapel of [the dead man's] jacket and nestled the bird inside the breast pocket, close to his stilled chest.

"'He'll stay there,' said the Swallow Man, as if to Anna. 'He'll protect [our friend] -- keep the crows off. He'll be all right.' And then again, 'He'll be all right.'

"Anna's mind conjured, suddenly, an image of a far-off time when there would be nothing left of [their friend] but a bearded skeleton, a time when the swallow would build himself a nest inside the broad ribs of [the man's] chest."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the effects of war on children. What do you know about kids caught up in the world's conflicts today? Do you see any way to help them?

  • Why do you think stories about kids thrown into terrible circumstances and having to survive are so popular? Which other ones do you know?

  • What do you know about the history of Poland? Does this story make you want to learn more?

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