This is an absolutely beautifully told story about the solitude of traveling around in Poland during World War 2, untethered by war and by mental health needs. The Swallow Man is a remarkably complex character well worth the time and effort it takes to unravel the metaphors and madness of the story.
In 1939 Krakow, seven-year-old Anna realizes her linguist father is not coming back from a meeting of university professors who have been summoned by the Gestapo. She can speak many languages and converse with adults, and she’s able to adapt to her surroundings as Anja, Khannaleh, Anke, or whichever persona she chooses. Her father’s friend, Herr Doktor Fuchsmann, becomes fearful about hiding her, so she takes to the streets, following a tall man with a doctor’s bag who talks to birds. The Swallow Man’s name is never learned, but the pair wander the countryside together for four years, in a story that gradually becomes less plot-based and more allegorical. There is plenty of bird imagery, suggesting the Swallow Man might be a trickster, as he swoops, nests, and eats little but dried bread. Yet there are also hints he has run from some nefarious involvement in the war and no longer wants to be “an instrument of death.” Spare dialogue and elegant prose are filled with subtleties, including the language Swallow Man and Anna agree to use to keep her safe, called the “Road.” Though Anna is a child at the beginning, she ages over the course of this novel, which gets darker and more violent toward the end. When Reb Hirschl, a burly and friendly Jewish man they meet in the woods, is killed and an unscrupulous doctor asks Anna to strip in exchange for medicine, it is a loss of innocence the author compares to hatching from the egg so that she will fly on her own. VERDICT More interpretive than literal, the story will generate discussion among YA readers.—Vicki Reutter, State University of New York at Cortland