The story is told in two voices and in two time frames, but both are set in motion by the same small miracle: one man’s enduring love for a beautiful young woman. The Pigeon loves Anielica so completely that he wants to make the world a perfect place for her. He starts by turning her father’s hut into a house worthy of her. But after the Germans roll through Poland at the beginning of the Second World War, the Pigeon works to change Poland itself, as a member of the Polish Resistance.
The second story takes place in post-Soviet Krakow, and is told by “Baba Yaga,” a young woman who has recently lost her beloved grandmother. She is living with some of her only relatives, Irena and her daughter Magda. While they are kind – in their bantering way – to the country cousin, Baba Yaga seems rudderless and apathetic. In fact, it was her story that gave me a slow start with this novel, as I kept wondering what this boring little bar girl had to do with the heroic, romantic events in the older narrative.
I am so happy I stuck with it.
A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True is ultimately a novel about the ingenuity and perseverance of the Polish people. Pasulka tells that story beautifully and with great depth of feeling, as when Anielica’s brother tries to convince her that the Pigeon will return safely to them:
”I was in the woods with him for five years, and there was never anything he couldn’t manage. We just need to wait a little while longer, and I’m sure he will be back any time now.” But the words coming from his mouth were too abundant to be reassuring. Reassuring words were tall, sparse, stoic. “Don’t be silly.” “He’s fine.” Trust me.” But Anielica did not press. She knew that her brother was worried too. She had noticed the furrows in his forehead deepening, his eyebrows slowly creeping upward for the past hour. Kindle location 4488
And while many reviews have described this book as “sad,” what I thought Pasulka captured best was the profound ability of the Polish people to find happiness despite history. Happiness in small things. In a wedding shared with 9 other couples in a post-war Poland with too few priests and too many deferred dreams. In an open-air bed. In a secret shared between sweethearts.
This is a wonderful book. In addition to the gripping storylines, the book also offers a glimpse into the recent history of Poland, which I found fascinating. In fact, it made me realize I need to learn more about the post-war years in Eastern Europe in general, and Poland in particular. I would absolutely recommend it to those love contemporary literary fiction, as well as those whose tastes run to historical fiction and even to lighter romances – there’s something here for those in any of those groups.
This book counts for a “Size” in the What’s in a Name 4 Challenge, and is my first book for this year’s Eastern European Reading Challenge at The Black Sheep Dances. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads and Amy for hosting!