From Publishers Weekly
Storytelling is at the heart of Stefaniak's (Self Storage and Other Stories
) lovingly crafted volume of three interwoven family tales (subtitled "A Novel"), which captures the history of a Croatian-American family settled in Milwaukee after World War I. The book's Decameron
-esque framework is set from the beginning as George, the first-generation American son of Josef and Agnes, is on his deathbed, surrounded by his adult children. The stories he tells about life in Milwaukee in the 1930s lead to stories-within-stories told by his grandmother Staramajka, the family matriarch, who steals the show. "My father's mother had her own style of storytelling, a style that avoided accommodating her listeners in any way.... You had to hear about the fence cleverly woven of branches, the dirt yard full of chickens, the four fat pigs that her son sold off when our mother was pregnant." A master of digression, Staramajka lingers over the details of village life as she tells of her daughter-in-law's secret love for a Turkish prisoner of war, her son Marko's wartime disappearance and miraculous return from Soviet Russia, and her own mysterious relationship with a blind gypsy called Istvan. She fades into the background only in the final story, in which yet another secret history is revealed, this one featuring Kata, the illegitimate daughter of a Polish woman with a traumatic past and a connection to George's family. Stefaniak's easy familiarity with the vernacular idioms of the old country and the new, and her zestful, respectful ear for different voices, create a world whose past, present and story-loving afterlife are at once magical and grounded in reality.
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A prim woman who swoons at the sight of Omar Sharif and a grandmother who once traveled with Gypsies are among the characters in this radiant debut inspired by Stefaniak's immigrant Milwaukee family. A novel rooted in real-life characters and events, the story is narrated by the author's octogenarian father, George Iljasic (who, in reality, died at age 59). Tales of Iljasic's ancestors reveal a cast of colorful characters, from his mild-mannered mother, Agnes, who had an affair with a tall, dark-eyed Serbian war prisoner (who she thought was a Turk) to his grandmother, Staramajka, who enjoyed a spirited friendship with a blind violinist. Fans of Amy Tan and Carol Shields will revel in the themes of remembrance, forgiveness, family devotion and forbidden love. When daughter Mary Helen returns to the Old Country in the wake of her father's death, she "discovers" flesh-and-blood proof that at least one of his tales is true. Or is it?
In this warmhearted, inventive novel, the truth seems beside the point. Allison BlockCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved