By Ekta R. Garg
February 3, 2016
Genre: Young adult historical fiction
Rating: Bypass it
A child loses her father at the start of World War II and meets a mysterious man who becomes her guardian. The two cross Poland in search of safety, and along the way the girl learns lessons about survival and the land. Author Gavriel Savit offers young adult readers this high concept WWII story with its roots in pure literary fiction in the dull, lackadaisical book Anna and the Swallow Man.
In 1939 seven-year-old Anna may not understand exactly what the word “war” means, but she knows one thing for sure: the war has taken away her father. A linguistics professor, her father leaves her in the charge of a friend and tells Anna he will come back for her. When morning turns into afternoon and then evening and night, Anna realizes that war has taken her father away.
She doesn’t know quite what to do…until she sees a tall stranger walking down the street. He seems to dismiss Anna at first, but she gathers her courage and talks to him. They don’t discuss it outright, but in some way they both understand the tall man allows Anna to follow him out of Krakow. She asks him what she can call him, and he answers, “Swallow Man.”
Anna follows the Swallow Man, as per his strict instructions, without question. Little by little Anna comes to learn a great deal about the topography of her home country from the Swallow Man. He doesn’t reveal his pre-travel profession, but Anna figures out that the Swallow Man must have spent a great deal of time in academia. As they travel they encounter soldiers and others fleeing the Nazis and Soviet soldiers. The people they meet and their experiences make Anna wonder whether “war” will ever end and whether she’ll ever have the privilege of peace again.
The publisher of author Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man dictate a target audience of 12 and up for the book, but the depth of literary writing will turn away reluctant middle school readers within the first few pages. While Savit’s writing stands out in parts, in many other places the description seems to try too hard. Many sentences act more as ornamentation and less as a means to move the story forward.
The journey Anna and the Swallow Man take doesn’t make sense. Anna asks at one point where they’re going; the Swallow Man doesn’t answer. From the narration, it seems like the two wander across Poland in some metaphorical crossing to the Promised Land. Readers may not like where the characters reach by the end of the book.
Unlike most books about this time period, the immediate threat presented by the Nazis and the Soviet soldiers remains muted for the most part. Savit seems to want to emphasize the journey, which would be fine if the journey included life-altering events along the way. Anna does befriend someone on the way across the country, and that character’s climactic fate may lead readers to think the story will achieve clarity. Those readers will remain wanting.
Had the publisher pitched this as a book for adults, the writing style may have been justified. Even then it would take a diehard fan of literary fiction to understand and appreciate this novel. As a book for young adult readers, it just doesn’t work. I recommend readers Bypass Anna and the Swallow Man.
(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)