In a tiny village in Poland, a young man begins his courtship of a beautiful girl named Anielica by renovating her family’s home. In the city of Krakow, a young woman known as “Baba Yaga” ponders what to do with her life next. For the first couple of chapters of A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka, I had no idea how these two stories would connect or coincide. After all, the story of Anielica takes place in the years before World War II. Baba Yaga is wandering around a Krakow that has just been liberated from Communism. But for those first couple of chapters when I was kept in the dark, I sometimes forgot to stop and wonder about the characters’ connection. Pages were flying too quickly and I was too wrapped up in the intricate, entrancing story unfolding before me.
The young man who is courting Anielica – known as “the Pigeon” for his pigeon-toed walk – first sees her speaking with his brother on a hillside in their tiny village. From that moment on, the Pigeon is smitten and completely devoted to Anielica. He becomes determined to prove to her family that he will be able to take care of her. So he uses his Polish hands – said to be good at constructing things – to refurbish her family’s house. Slowly, their house becomes the nicest, most developed in the village and the Pigeon wins the trust of Anielica’s family. As he has been building, he has also been talking to Anielica and they have been slowly beginning a courtship. But then World War II arrives.
As beautiful as this book is and though it is an utter joy to read, there is also a heartbreaking dread lingering over the characters you begin to fall in love with. As with any book that includes the events of World War II in its plot, you know that utter ruin is coming for someone in some way at any moment. And Pasulka masterfully writes the changeover from peaceful, idyllic times in a hillside village in Poland to the terror felt by the Polish people during the war and even afterward as the Russians marched in with their Communist rule to make everything “better.”
On the flip side of that terror and hardship is the ennui and grey pallor that lies like a stifling blanket over Baba Yaga, her generation, and the generation of her aunt, Irena. Irena’s daughter Magda is irresponsible and constantly partying when she should be studying for law school. Baba Yaga works at a bar and is also a caretaker for an old woman who regales her with tales of Krakow’s movie business in its heyday.
Baba Yaga seems to encapsulate the restlessness of Poland’s youth at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st. She doesn’t know what she should be doing, she is floundering in a system that retains vestiges of the method of using favors from friends to get into schools, which is left over from Communist rule. She hears a lot from Irena about what Poland was, but she doesn’t seem clear on what it should be or what she should be. I know that America has not been besieged by war or outside invasions, but I think that my generation can identify with that feeling of not knowing where to go next. I know I certainly did.
Brigid Pasulka’s expansive tale of one love story and its many branches is told with loving detail. As you read, you begin to get the feeling that this is a handmade book. It was created by someone with love and all of its story elements were stitched together as a result of painstaking research. If you look up Brigid Pasulka, you will find that she did live in Poland for several years to understand the culture and the country’s history for the book. That research that Pasulka took the trouble to compile shows in every line of the book. You will feel that you are in Krakow or in Anielica’s village, which is so small it is only called “Half-Village.”
A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is a sprawling tale that spans time periods and tells the story of a Poland that has been under siege since the Nazis first invaded. And though they are beaten down time and again, the characters in this novel – just like the people of Poland – rise up again and somehow find hope.