Anna and the Swallow Man, by Gavriel Savit

Anna and the Swallow Man, by Gavriel Savit, (Knopf Books for Young Readers, January 2016), is a story set in WW II Poland about a little girl who has lost her home and father to the Germans, and finds, in an enigmatic stranger who can call birds to his finger, a father who is in need of a child,  The two, little girl and Swallow Man, off to walk through the years of war, because to stay in one place is to risk being found, and the hints gradually build that the Swallow Man has very good reason for not wanting to be found and used to as a weapon.   Together they beg and pilfer and scavenge, keeping to themselves and slipping through the dangerous days and cold nights, until Anna meets a young Jewish Musician, who in his joy and zest for life shows her a way of being in the world that the Swallow Man cannot (nb--friends, not romance--Anna is still a child), and he joins them in their peregrinations of survival until he no longer can.

And then Anna must turn into the caretaker of the Swallow Man when he runs out of the medicine that keeps him sane, leading to her being asked by a pharmacist to offer her naked body in exchange for more of the drug.  Anna is still naïve, and the horror of this incident is that it is a transaction that she doesn't, and cannot, question, if she wants her Swallow Man back.  

The ending, separating the two of them by the Swallow Man's choice, neither promises or denies the possibility of future happiness, and instead adds to the dream-like, surreal, quality of the whole book.  (the ending would have seemed less surreal to me if I had known more clearly what the heck was happening...but I didn't).  It's a dark story de facto, but the Swallow Man manages in his care of Anna to keep alive beauty and wonder; perhaps not hope, for she doesn't know, I think, what she might hope for.

It is very much a story that is like a picture seen from a distance, told neither from Anna's or the Swallow Man's point of view.  And so I never felt at any visceral level that I understood them; it is more an intellectual excursion, heart touching but not immersively emotional.  It seemed to me a story that relied on a combination of hints that one needed to use to deduce things on one's own, combined with narratorial pronouncements, as opposed to a story flowing naturally from inside the characters themselves.  It would be a fine book for teens or adults to read and discuss, but it's not a kid's book, despite Anna's age.  That is, I guess it would be a fine book for discussion, but if I were part of that chat, I'd mostly be asking sort of cynical questions of doubtfulness, as opposed to expressing great appreciation.  Like--was the Swallow Man selfish in not trying to find Anna a more stable home?

Short Answer:  not really my cup of tea, but lots of other people seem to love it, so it's probably a matter of personal taste.  Here's the NY Times book review, which I generally agree with (though that reviewer, Elizabeth Wein, liked the book more than me!).

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher at BEA last summer.


  1. This didn't feel like it would work for our 8th grade Holocaust unit, so I'm going to pass.

  2. I tried to read this, made it about 5 chapters and decided that I just Didn't Get It. In fact, I still can't figure out why people are raving. Then again, I don't get why people love Pax either, so it's clearly me...

  3. Even reading your review of it, I felt like it was the sort of book that would distance me. It's the not giving names -- and calling a character something like The Swallow Man, equating him with an animal that way, already makes the story feel like a parable, which is a sure way to stop me from engaging with it emotionally. :/

  4. ???

    Why do people assume that a book with a kid protagonist is a MG book?? Like you said, this sounds more teen/adult, especially with the creeper pharmacist. What the??


Free Blog Counter

Button styles