To my thinking, this book exemplifies astonishing achievement in writing, both on the literal and symbolic levels.
There are only three characters for most of the book; who they are and my best guess at who they are on a “meta” level is as follows: Anna, a seven-year-old girl when we first meet her, personifies both innocence and later innocence destroyed; The Swallow Man, a Werner Heisenberg-like character who, I think, represents the uneasy balance between knowledge (especially, technological advancement) and consideration for ethicality; and Reb Hirschl, who supplies the moral conscience of the story.
The story begins in November 1939 in Kraków, Poland, after Anna’s father has been arrested during a roundup of intellectuals and academics. Because her father was a linguist, Anna is multilingual in a sophisticated way:
“Anna knew that different languages dealt in nuances of expression with different levels of explicitness— in one tongue an idiom might lay out quite directly what the speaker meant to communicate, whereas in another, via the legerdemain of a self-effacing metaphor, a depth of feeling or a sly opinion might very well only be hinted at.”
Further, she has learned that while the same word often connotes something different in each language, the word war “is a heavy word in every language.” And she soon gets caught right in the middle of it.
Alone after her father is taken, she begins to follow a tall man who saw that she was abandoned, and who tried to cheer her up by calling down a swallow to her. When she asks his name, he tells her to call him The Swallow Man; real names are too dangerous. They roam the countryside always in hiding, living off the land when they can, and begging – or as a last choice, stealing – when they cannot.
Swallow Man carries only a few possessions with him. One is a large bottle of pills he takes three times a day (for an unknown condition that is revealed as having great significance toward the end of the story). Another is a little girl’s shoe, which we can only assume belonged to a child lost to him. Anna cannot replace this little girl, but unwittingly steps into her place; indeed, she says to him as she implores him to allow her to accompany him:
“I know it’s not good for a girl to be without a father these days. But is it any better for a father to be without a daughter?”
As they travel, the Swallow Man gives Anna lessons, not only in science and geography and biology, but in the art of survival. And in this respect he teaches her a new language, which he calls Road. He tells her their goal is the preservation of an endangered species – a very rare bird that both the Germans [“Wolves”] and Russians [“Bears”] want to find and devour so they will be stronger. Anna asks what makes this bird special and the Swallow Man explains:
“It’s a bird. A bird that flies and sings. And if the Wolves and Bears have their way, no one will ever fly or sing in precisely the same way that it does. Never again. Does it need to be more special than that?”
Does he mean the Jews? Does he mean humaneness, or innocence, or freedom generally? It wasn’t clear to me, but the point could apply to any of them.
Eventually, the two are joined, largely at Anna’s insistence, by another person trying to hide from the Germans: a naive and improbable escapee from a Jewish ghetto, Reb Hirschl. Reb Hirschl’s interactions with Anna actually help to demonstrate one of the Swallow Man’s lessons that he himself seemed to have forgotten:
“Men who try to understand the world without the help of children are like men who try to bake bread without the help of yeast.”
The Swallow Man later admits to Anna: “I had lost sight . . . of the fact that survival in and of itself is not sufficient to support every life equally.”
But eventually, Reb Hirschl, with his censure for the Swallow Man’s “road ethics,” comes between Anna and Swallow Man. He seemed to me in a way to be a one-man Greek chorus.
Ethical issues aren’t the only direct concern. When Swallow Man runs out of his white pills, he starts to turn into someone Anna doesn’t recognize, speaking a language she doesn’t yet know. Increasingly, she must determine what is true from “shadow language,” like that of the gnomon. She doesn’t always understand: nothing was as it appeared, and magical explanations didn’t seem out of the question.
And as the inexorable destruction of the war grinds on, all of them make decisions that cannot be reversed. The destruction of the world at large is echoed in the destruction of the very essence of who they thought they were, and of the qualities they were trying so hard to preserve.
Discussion: The empty spaces in the story are vast. While we are literally plunged into the landscape of WWII, across Poland and into parts of Russia, “war” is spoken of only rarely. The specifics of the Holocaust are just intimated. God is never mentioned. But what makes us human and *keeps* us human – this is a major theme nevertheless.
Savit, in the interview cited below, mentioned the influence of his Jewish education on his appreciation for the polysemy of texts. And in fact, Hebrew scriptures must contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. The lack of textuality in this book also adds to the impact of the story; emotional experiences gain power by not being forced to fit inside the reason-heavy and mostly linear framework mandated by conventional literature.
You could spend an entire book club meeting on each chapter of this book. In fact, I read the last chapter, with its brilliantly constructed title, four times, each instance coming away with a new understanding of what had happened.
Evaluation: This stunning book requires readers to engage in the text more than most; one must not only fill in the blank spaces with what is generally known, as with details about World War II, but also with what can be imagined, such as who and what these characters really are. Reading this book is a thrilling collaborative process between the author and the reader. I hope even those with “Holocaust fatigue” will consider this book; the tragedy is subtle, the imagery is spectacular, and the story is truly sui generis.
Note: This is published by an imprint for young readers, and is marketed in the Young Adult section of bookstores. Should it be there? Not in my opinion. The author had this to say about the matter in an interview:
“It’s interesting how when you write a story that’s centered around a young woman, it gets received as being on the more juvenile side, and that’s an unfortunate reality of the way we think of women’s narratives in the world right now. But, it also sort of opened the book up a little bit. I didn’t immediately think of it as a child’s narrative, but I do think it’s fundamentally a story about a magical time and mindset in childhood, the immediacy of which a lot of us forget as we get older.
I also think we are very fortunate right now that what has traditionally been considered generic fiction—speculative, detective, children’s—is falling by the wayside. Young adult narratives are en vogue. There’s no shame in reading a book we enjoy.”
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Kids, a division of Random House, Inc., whose parent company is Bertelsmann AG, a leading international media company, 2016