We’re coming up on the 10 year anniversary of The Book Thief! It has been a big hit, and is known for its magical realism which helps to illuminate the horror of the characters’ reality as well as their inner beauty. So after 10 long years it is about time for another book to come along to keep it company. That book is Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit. And believe me these two novels are well suited to each other.
Taking place during the German occupation in Poland, Anna loses her father when the German’s ship all the academics to internment camps. Soon after, she meets the enigmatic Swallow Man who takes over her care. The two travel, often sleeping in the wild and living off of charity, crossing borders, and generally avoiding people. But of course, everyone has secrets, and the Swallow Man is running from his past.
Anna is a precocious young girl but at the age of 7 there is a lot about the war torn world that she still can’t understand. In order to teach her how to survive the Swallow Man educates her in metaphors, giving Anna’s understanding of the world a layer of magical realism and an elements of a folk tale.
Anna’s way of seeing the world is both childlike and profound. Often making ideas and concepts unfamilliar, which allows you to examine them in new ways. One of the my favourite and the most pervasive stories the Swallow Man tells Anna is that that the war is being fought between bears and wolves, and the wolves don’t like anyone who is not a wolf like them. These stories colour Anna’s vision of the world, but it also allows you to see the world through the Swallow Man’s eyes. We are also able to measure just how much Anna grows as she begins to understand the deeper meanings in the stories he tells her.
Anna and the Swallow Man certainly isn’t the first story to take a fantastical approach to war stories. It’s easy to see a connection between this novel and Life is Beautiful, the movie about the father pretends to be playing a game with his son in order to soften the reality of the Holocaust. There is also a personal favourite, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, set after the Spanish Civil War, in which the main character’s reality is explored through fairy tales.
The Swallow Man
The Swallow Man becomes the center of Anna’s world and he’s is the dictionary definition of an enigmatic character. He is meticulous in his hiding: knowing how to get people to help him out but also how to avoid being remarkable to them. He cares greatly for Anna but also keeps her at arm’s length for his own sake and their safety.
Anna describes him with such wonder that he is as much a myth as he is a character.
[quote]“The Swallow Man didn’t need the world to suit him. He could make himself suit whatever world it pleased him to agree existed.”[/quote]
Eventually the Swallow Man’s past comes back to haunt him, and you do learn a few snippets that you have to work to piece together. This may be frustrating for some people, but the incomplete pieces of his past you get only adds to his mystery.
There are so many quotes in Anna and the Swallow Man to love, and so many ideas that stick with you long after you’ve put the book down. It’s not a very long read, and deceptively seems simple, but there is so much to unpack. It would make a fantastic book for kids to study in Gr. 7 or 8, just because it’s so easy to read with so much beneath the surface. This is a book that you can keep coming back to, and every time you did you would come out with something new. If you’re looking for a beautiful, simple read, Anna and the Swallow Man is sure to become a classic.