Mary Helen Stefaniak, Author . Norton $24.95 (316p) ISBN 978-0-393-05924-3

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. Agent, Georges Borchardt . (June)

Forecast: Regional sales may be strongest for this immigrant tale, but enthusiastic reviews could help it break out nationwide.

Reviewed on: 04/26/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-393-32699-4
Show other formats
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!