Anna and the Swallow Man
Author: Gabriel Savit
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genres: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, Fairy Tale
Ages: 12 & up
Release Date: 1/26/16
Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Łania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She’s alone.
And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.
The Swallow Man is not Anna’s father—she knows that very well—but she also knows that, like her father, he’s in danger of being taken, and like her father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced. She follows him into the wilderness.
Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgment, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man.
“So,” the thin man said in his fine German, as much smoke as sound escaping his lips. “Who are you?”
Anna had no idea how to answer this question. Her jaw worked, trying to find some word in any language to sculpt out of the air—she knew that there was a version of “Anna” that the Germans used for her, but it felt somehow wrong to say to this stern authority of a man that that word was who she was. She was, just as much, cold, and hungry, and frightened, and her mind labored to recall which particular diminutive it was in the first place.
The thin man raised an eyebrow and cocked his head to the right. He frowned and switched to Polish. “For whom are you waiting?”
Where his German had been bright and crisp, his Polish was just as round and swift. He was the first person Anna had heard since her father who had an equal command of more than one language.
She wanted to answer him, wanted to talk, but she didn’t know what she could tell him. It occurred to her to say that she was waiting for her father, but, in point of fact, she was not so sure of the truth of this anymore, and if one thing was clear about this tall stranger, it was that he was not someone to whom one offered a lie.
The thin man nodded in answer to Anna’s silence and switched to Russian. “Where are your parents?”
This question should’ve been easy to answer, except that Anna honestly couldn’t say because she didn’t know. She was about to tell him so, but by this point the tall man had grown used to her unresponsiveness and he cycled rapidly and spoke again: Yiddish.
“Are you all right?”
It was this question that made Anna cry. Of course, in their way, the others and their answerlessnesses were just as confounding, just as troubling. Perhaps it was the sudden softening of his tone—him, a man who was more than a little frightening to her then, towering up there above her, suddenly concerned. Things had been getting progressively less all right for weeks and months now, and she couldn’t remember anyone else ever having asked how she was. Even her father had been so busy laboring to provide an acceptable sort of all-rightness for her that he had neglected ever to ask if it had worked.
Perhaps it was the Yiddish. That was Reb Shmulik’s language. Anna had not seen Reb Shmulik in many weeks, and though she was a child, she was not blind to what was happening to the Jews of the city. Part of her had been unsure that Yiddish still survived at all until the thin man had spoken it.
The most likely explanation for Anna’s tears, though, was that this was the one question that, with certainty, she knew the answer to:
She was not all right.
The thin man seemed more puzzled than concerned by her tears. Again his brows bunched together, and he cocked his head to the side as he looked down at her. As much as anything, the thin man seemed curious.
The man’s eyes were very sharp. They were deep-set in his head, and even if a girl was working very hard to hide her tears from the world, she would have quite a time of trying not to watch them. Like fishhooks, his eyes captured Anna’s and drew them in to him.
The next thing he did changed Anna’s life forever.
The thin man turned his sharp eyes up toward the eaves of the buildings that huddled around the short street. Anna’s captive gaze followed close behind. Spotting what he wanted, the thin man brought his lips close in together and spoke a chirruping, bright whistle of a phrase up in the direction of the sky.
There was a sudden noise of wings, and a bird came plummeting down to the street like a falling bomb. It spread its wings to gather in the air and slow its descent, alighted on a small gray paving stone, hopped, blinked, and cocked its head to the side, looking up at the thin man.
He passed his cigarette from his left hand to his right, and crouching down to street level, his peaked knees reaching nearly to the height of his ears, the tall man proffered his left forefinger, pointing right, parallel to the ground.
For a moment the bird was still. The thin man spoke to it again, and as if called by name, it flitted up to perch on the branch of his finger.
He turned slowly, carrying the bird over to Anna, looked her straight in her wide eyes, and raised his right forefinger to his lips in hush.
It was unnecessary. Wary of frightening the beautiful, delicate little creature, Anna had not only already stopped her crying, but again found that she was holding her breath.
Anna could see the creature incredibly clearly where he held it out to her, just inches from her face. Its head and wings were a bright, vibrant, iridescent blue, and its face and ruff were pale orange. Its tail was split in a wide fork, and it moved in quick bursts, otherwise holding itself in absolute stillness, looking up at her, as if the thin man had managed to produce a series of perfectly lifelike sculptures to perch atop his hand, each of which he seamlessly replaced with the next.
Anna smiled in spite of herself and reached out her hand to touch the bird. For a moment she thought she might just lay her fingertips on its soft feathers, but in a shocking burst of motion, it flew off, up into the sky, rather than stay and be touched.
The thin man’s mouth was locked in an impassive expression, but his sharp eyes flashed with a sort of fire of triumph, and with startling speed and fluency he unfolded himself back to his full height and began to make his way across the road toward Herr Doktor Fuchsmann’s shop. Anna was shocked that he could even hear her when she breathed her little question to herself out into the air.
“What was that?” she said.
“That,” said the thin man, not turning back, “was a swallow.”