Monday, June 13, 2011

Not long ago and not whimsical

When I am confined to bed with a malady that makes my head feel like an overgrown cabbage, why not read the novel about Poland that has been waiting on my TBR list for at least a year? It's a book that won several minor awards, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN prize in 2010.

Long, Long Ago and Essentially True exceeded my expectations; I don't remember what I read on someone's blog that got me interested, but when the book arrived and I saw the fanciful flowery cover with notes using the words "whimsical" and "romance" on the same page, I'm afraid I unconsciously relegated it to a genre of Light Reading.

But a story of Poland from the 1930's to about 1990 is painfully full of war, tyrants, secret police, lies and alcoholism. Wives and mothers can't even mention their men who went missing years ago; their grandchildren grapple with the generational ripples of all the wounds and deaths and separations both social and physical. I had to look up the word whimsical just now to make sure of my understanding, and no, the author Brigid Pasulka never gave the impression that she was trying to be "playful, erratic or fantastical" with her subject.

The opening chapter that tells about an upright young man named Pigeon might make you think it's all light and charming, and perhaps to some reviewers the idea of such a hero with old-fashioned morals seems like a fairy tale. He is a shining example of the classic Pole who has Golden Hands that can make or fix anything. And he loves Anielica, a sweet girl who will soon suffer much with and for him, including the long postponement of their wedding -- but that turns out to be the least of their sorrows.

The novel alternates chapters about teenagers growing up during the war years with those about their granddaughter in the late 20th century. Her life, also, is nearly wrecked by many of the same old misfortunes as well as some newer ones, like drug-dealing boyfriends. Funny moments and comic aspects pepper her story, as they did her grandparents'. Being able to appreciate the comedy is one way to deal with the heartache; that doesn't make the story a piece of humor.

The book was just serious enough and just long enough to keep me turning the pages and to distract me from my painful head, and I did not predict the ending that lifted me out of the general bleakness that was trying to smother the characters all the way through. The Polish people had several years of trying to survive and even fight against the Nazis, and then could barely catch their breath before the Soviets took over and they had to quickly shift gears and learn how to cope with a slightly different oppression, the effects of which stretched long into the future.

Through it all the protagonists in this story, the grandparents and the parents and grandchildren, fight to stay together and to protect one another. Bribes and lies and dreadful compromises at times appear to be daily necessities, but the characters' love and perseverance keep them from the despair that lurks around the corners of their houses like a traitorous neighbor. The moral quandaries that they experience are neither explored in depth nor treated flippantly.

The author, I read on the cover, spent a year in Poland learning the language and the culture of her ancestors. She uses often untranslated Polish words lavishly throughout the story, and they aren't always easily deciphered versions of English words, so I was frequently left wondering what I was missing, not having a Polish dictionary handy. Nor did I want to look up the many references to obscure events in Polish history which the characters mentioned. But those are my only complaints.

In the middle of meditating on the history and people of Poland (and after rising from my sickbed) I read this poem that Maria posted last week, by a Pole who would have grown up during the Soviet era. The images the writer conjures up, of a field mouse, a tree, "A grass blade trampled by a stampede of incomprehensible events," lined up very well with the impression I got from this debut novel, of a brave people surviving by means of the virtues of their humanity, which is the grace of God.


Richie and Bethany said...

Perhaps, someday, I will read a book? In the meanwhile, I will read your blog and laugh at your description of your head's feeling like an overgrown cabbage. Not because the symptom is something to laugh at, but because you make it sound so funny!

M.K. said...

GJ, thank you so much for this review. I had forgotten. I went to Poland twice in the 80s, for brief mission trips (at which I was no good), and I got to know some Polish young people (which I liked much better). How I loved the stoic strength they used to approach all of life. They have suffered so much.

Gumbo Lily said...

A book of suffering when you are suffering from a Big Headache. How do you do it? I would need something more fluffy. I liked the poem you linked.


wayside wanderer said...

You make this sound very interesting. I am drawn to 20th Century history, probably because I learned so little about it in school. I hope you feel better soon!

Janet said...

This sounds challenging and fascinating. I would have had the same impression as you did from the cover alone, but I guess the old saying about judging books by their covers is borne out with this one.

I hope you feel better soon. Reading is probably the last thing I could accomplish with a persistent headache.

Pom Pom said...

What a fantastic review, Gretchen Joanna! I am going to find that book! I hope your head feels lighter today! Prayers.

maria horvath said...

This book sounds so interesting that I just have ordered it through my library.

Best wishes for a speedy recovery, GretchenJoanna.


helenmae said...

Gretchen, I've just added book to my reading list. I'd prefer not to have a cauliflower head when I read it though. :)

Gigi said...

Heavens -- sounds like an awful headache! Hope you're feeling better!?
And I don't know how you focused on such a long intricate read while feeling so poorly. I'd be more likely to be in bed watching "Nanny McPhee Returns" -- again ;).

Zee said...

I hope you feel better!

This does sound like an intriguing book.

Cindy Swanson said...

Excellent review! I would never have guessed from the cover that it was about that.

I do hope you're over your malady. :)

Hope you'll visit my review...
Cindy @ Cindy's Book Club

Sherry said...

My head, too, has been rather cabbage-like this week. I've seen a review of this book somewhere else recently, and I had planned to pick it up. Thank you for reminding me.

Marfa said...

It sounds like I book I'd enjoy...thank you! My daughter (who is 9) recently read "Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry, she enjoyed it so much, I had to read it, too. Excellent. Have you read it?