Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Brigid Pasulka: A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True

Looking at the excessively whimsical title and dust-jacket design of A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True, it’s easy to suspect that it’s another Jonathan Safran Foer rip-off, turning the detritus of the 20th century into something for American expatriates to frolic through. Instead, it’s a largely enjoyable wartime folktale grafted onto a coming-of-age story set in Poland shortly after the fall of communism. The graft between the two tales isn’t wholly successful, but each one is delicately written and nicely observed.


The first tale (told in odd-numbered chapters) is the story of The Pigeon, a boy with innate leadership qualities and solid construction skills. He uses the two to woo Anielica, the most beautiful girl on his mountain, and potentially in all of Poland. Then their storybook love is tested by World War II and the rise of communism. The second tale (told in even-numbered chapters) concerns one of The Pigeon’s descendents, Baba Yaga, a twentysomething realizing that the rise of capitalism in Poland has left her with even fewer options than she had before.

These two stories intersect by virtue of involving members of the same family early on, but Pasulka seems intent on not making that connection more obvious for so long that the difference in tones between the novel’s two halves occasionally becomes tricky to navigate. The Pigeon portions are written like a campfire story passed down through the ages, told in a fairly omniscient third person, while the Baba Yaga portions are standard coming-of-age stuff with a new setting. The characters in this half, all dealing with the collapse of communism in different ways, are compelling and well-drawn, but the comparison to their larger-than-life counterparts is often unflattering.

But Pasulka pulls it all together at the book’s end, and what she was aiming for becomes apparent. The sins of the fathers are visited on the son, but Long Long Time Ago argues that the sins of history can only fully be felt by the children and grandchildren left behind to plumb its wastes. The book’s closing chapters, when the past visits the future in a surprising way and Baba Yaga begins sifting through those ashes, pack a surprising wallop in their suggestion that it’s only human to want to punish yourself too much.