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A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka.

October 24, 2014

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

A warm family tale about Polish peasants which braids together stories about surviving Nazi and Soviet occupations and about living in post-Communist Krakow.

Brigid Pasulka, the daughter of Polish immigrants, grew up on a farm in northern Illinois. After college, she visited Krakow and stayed a year. Traveling and living in Europe, she returned frequently and came to appreciate its mix of the old and the new Poland. A Long, Long Time Ago grew out of her time there.

In a series of alternating chapters, Pasulka tells two stories gradually revealing their overlap. One narrative feels almost like a folktale, describing the love between Pigeon and Anielica and the supportive resilient community around them. When World War II begins people are hurt and killed and families are separated. War does not only affected soldiers, but also civilians. As soon as the Nazis are defeated, the Soviets arrive with their own style of oppression. The couple and other relatives obey demands that they go to Krakow to help create a better Poland. The city, however, provides both joy and pain. Having been a leader in the partisan forces, Pigeon disappears and Anielica returns to the village to raise their daughter.

The other narrative is told in first-person by the couple’s granddaughter, Beeta, or as she is nicknamed, Baba Yaga. Her story is grittier and more internal than theirs. She has comes to Krakow to live with relatives after the death of her grandmother who had raised her in the village. Feeling lonely and adrift, she works as a barmaid and domestic servant; she lives with her great-aunt and cousin, abrasive individuals with problems of their own. Capitalism has arrived in Poland, and Krakow is a messy and confusing city, where Baba Yoga sees an empty future.  But family still matters, insuring that she eventually finds a place for herself.

Pasulka is a master storyteller, able to create the different tones of the stories and the resilience shared by the characters in both. She uses wry humor to balance the painfulness of her tales. As the stories blend, their intensity builds to an ending that I at least had not expected. Her writing has justifiably garnered awards.

I recommend A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True to all who enjoy excellent storytelling with a unique viewpoint. And to anyone interested in recent Polish and European history.

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