In the late 1930s, on top of a hill outside a Polish village called Half-Village, a young man nicknamed the Pigeon sees a beautiful girl for the first time. He is stricken by the girl’s blonde hair, beautiful face, and the patient way she speaks to his developmentally disabled brother. The Pigeon soon learns that the girl, who his brother calls “the Angel,” is Anielica Hetmanska, widely considered the most beautiful girl in the village – or any village, for that matter. The Pigeon is poor and awkward, but he knows that Anielica must be his wife, so he presents himself at her father’s door and courts her using the only thing he has: his carpentry skills. The Pigeon offers to renovate the Hetmanski family house for free and stone by stone, board by board he builds himself into Anielica’s heart and the Hetmanski family. But World War II, and then Communism, conspire to delay the day when the Pigeon will finally call Anielica his wife – and even when that day comes, their troubles are far from over.
The story of Anielica and the Pigeon alternates with that of their granddaughter, Beata (nicknamed “Baba Yaga” after a Polish fairytale witch), who is trying to make her way in 1990s Krakow . Baba Yaga’s Krakow is very different from the Krakow her grandparents discovered in the 1940s. Energetic and a little frenetic, Krakow – like Baba Yaga – is deciding what it will be now that the future and the “New Poland” have arrived. Baba Yaga drifts through her city life, buffeted on all sides by her cousin Irena, Irena’s daughter Magda, her coworker Kinga and her boss Stash, and others. Where does Baba Yaga fit into this New Poland? This is the question she will have to answer when tragedy strikes and a figure from the past appears without warning in her life.
Now, I would have been interested in this story no matter where it was set. I’m all about the love-story-with-historical-background, in general. (I’m referring to Anielica and the Pigeon, who were the stars of the book for me. Baba Yaga gets more “airtime,” but I didn’t find her as compelling of a character as I did the Pigeon, and especially Anielica – at least, not until the end of the book, anyway.) But being part Polish myself, I was especially interested, because I thought the book might give me some insights into that part of my heritage. I don’t know much about Poland – I know that pierogis are delicious (and that I set kitchen fires when I try to make them); I also know that Poland gave the world amazing people like Chopin, Copernicus, and Pope John Paul II; and I’m fairly well-versed in Polish Christmas traditions. But that’s basically it. What I know about Polish history, I’ve mostly picked up from the occasional mention in AP Euro and more recently, from fiction (like The Winter Palace, which taught me more about the Polish government of the 1700s than history class ever did – sad, considering the entire novel was set in Imperial Russia). Poland gets short shrift in fiction, generally, so I was happy to pick up Brigid Pasulka’s ode to the country that she loves.
And it was well worthwhile. On top of learning more about Polish culture, history and tradition than I have from any source other than my grandmother, I loved the story. Anielica and the Pigeon share a real, strong, beautiful love and their sad but hopeful tale was lovely to read. Baba Yaga, too, won me over in the end (not that I ever disliked her – she just wasn’t as interesting to me). The writing was elegant, but also rang true to the settings and the characters, and the cast of supporting characters (Anielica’s brother and his wife, Irena and Magda, Stash and Kinga, Pani Bozena, Magda’s friends…) were all well-drawn and complex. I’ll definitely be looking for Brigid Pasulka’s next book.
A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka, available through IndieBound (not an affiliate link).