Like much of Eastern Europe, Poland endured a turbulent 20th century as a pawn in the match for regional supremacy between Germany and the Soviet Union. It is that contest—World War II and the postwar Communist years—that gives shape to Brigid Pasulka’s accomplished debut novel, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True. While not a war novel per se, Pasulka’s frequently charming narrative has its share of wartime tragedy, but it is underplayed, wrapped in an unruffled, fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable that comes to define and motivate her Polish characters.

As its folk story-like title signals, a good deal of Long, Long Time Ago unfolds like a tale that has been told and retold for generations. It is a story involving a resourceful young peasant named Pigeon, who utilizes his “golden hands” as a builder to win his way into the heart of the family of his beloved, Anielica. The invasion of the Germans in 1939 puts their predestined marriage on hold, as Pigeon becomes a partisan and, for the next six years, lends his considerable wiles to the defeat of the Nazis. Anielica’s brother is married to a Jewish girl (their wedding is in fact interrupted by the arrival of the first bombers in the skies over their village), which puts the family in a particularly precarious position.

At war’s end, Pigeon, Anielica and others leave behind the village life they know and move to Krakow, where they discover that, rumors to the contrary, the streets are not paved with gold. Indeed, in the newly organized People’s Republic of Poland, only the mother tongue of the enemy has changed, and the long repressed voice of Polish national identity continues to struggle to be heard.

In alternating chapters, Pasulka complements Pigeon’s story with a more contemporary one, set in the early ’90s, just after the fall of Communism. It is told by a young woman newly arrived in Krakow from the countryside. Nicknamed Baba Yaga—because her features resemble those of the witch-like character of Slavic folktales—this young woman is, in fact, the granddaughter of Pigeon and Anielica. Living with her cousin Irena and Irena’s daughter, Magda, in a cramped flat, Baba Yaga works as a companion to a nostalgic old woman during the day and as a bar girl at night. Directionless and yearning for love, she has one passion: movies. As a “good girl,” she wins Irena’s affection, especially when her behavior is contrasted with Magda’s profligate ways.

Baba Yaga’s adventures in the city and faltering love affairs are tempered by the new freedom that has arrived with democracy and capitalism. It is a time of uncertainty as the people of Poland, particularly this new generation, grapple every day with a new world order. Most dream of leaving for the West. “Things are terrible here in Poland,” Irena dictates in an imaginary letter she wishes she could send to the American tourists who rent the spare room of her flat as they pass through Krakow. “There is so much poverty and unemployment, and the filthy capitalist pigs in your country who wanted this revolution are doing nothing to help the people. Once the communists fell, you left us like manure in the pasture.”
Like Krakow, and Poland overall, Baba Yaga and the others are caught in a strange netherworld between the old-world past and the frightening open-ended possibilities of the future. Ultimately, it will take a tragedy for Baba Yaga to be able to say, “I’m not naïve anymore.” Tragedy brings self-awareness, both as a woman and as a Pole.

Though at times the Baba Yaga chapters of the book lapse into the episodic, the story of Pigeon and Anielica is consistently magical, and this first-time novelist has an indisputable talent for a tale well-told. Pasulka, an American of Polish descent, stumbled upon Krakow as a young college graduate in 1994 and decided to stay on for a year. She clearly knows and loves this culturally rich city, where the medieval and the modern live side by side. She proves a reliable guide to a destination many have never visited—or even thought about visiting. Like any good host, she makes us feel as if we’ve found a small piece of home.

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