A sardonic expedition into a small-town ethnic childhood and post-World War II America—and how to survive Rust Belt hard times.
At last . . . a memoir finally worthy of comparison to the uproariously funny fiction of the great Jean Shepherd, author and narrator of the beloved A Christmas Story.
Only . . . it’s all true. Sometimes . . . sadly true.
Award-winning presidential historian and baseball scholar David Pietrusza’s witty and wise tale of growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Too Long Ago is no Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best episode.
It’s a unique glimpse into an unjustly ignored and forgotten immigrant experience—Eastern European and devoutly pre-Vatican II Catholic. A tale of a tight-knit Polish community, transplanted from tiny, impoverished Hapsburg-ruled villages to a hardscrabble, hardworking, hard-drinking Upstate New York mill town.
It’s how the first rust corroded the Rust Belt, sidetracking dreams but not hope. It’s a lively saga of secrets and hard times, of insanity, of manslaughter and murder, of war and postwar, Depression and Recession, racetracks and religions, books and bar rooms, unforgettable personalities and vastly unpronounceable names, of characters and character, of popular culture (sometimes surprisingly high by today’s standards), of homelessness, of immigration—first to America and then from Rust Belt to Sun Belt—of vices and virtues, and how a sickly, bookwormish boy who loved history and the presidents finally discovered a national pastime and made it his own.
Meet Too Long Ago’s mesmerizing cast of characters: Depression-ravaged Felix and Agnes Marek, Corporal Danny Pietrusza and his wartime adventures, Uncle Tony Lenczewski and his raided saloon, brutal serial-killer Lemuel Smith, the high-kicking weather-prophet “Cousin George” Casabonne, carpet heiress and OSS operative Gertie Sanford, caught behind-enemy-lines Mary Zaklukiewicz, and the homeless (but not hopeless) Uncle Leo Zack.
Alternately sharp-edged and warm-hearted—sometimes shocking and always surprising—Too Long Ago is a poignant tour-de-force, a no-stopping-for-breath, coming-of-age narrative, akin to cross-breeding Jean Shepherd’s boisterous A Christmas Story with Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo’s gritty semi-autobiographical novel Mohawk (set mere miles from Too Long Ago) and presenting the genre-bending result in the mesmerizing form of a decidedly non-WASPY rendition of an epic Spalding Gray monolog.
Plot: This polished and gently humored work of memoir contains two threads: Pietrusza’s personal history of his Polish family between the '50s and today, and the history and decline of the small town of Amsterdam, New York.
Prose/Style: Pietrusza's experience as an author is clear throughout the well-developed text, which offers a graceful blending of personal insights with historical content.
Originality: This history focuses on a small, unique town in New York, and of the personal story of the author's family. The details of Polish community and Polish food (such as stuffed cabbage rolls, pierogi, and many beers) are especially engaging. Pietrusza also discusses at length, and with great nostalgia, TV shows and movies.
Character Development/Execution: The characters, including the author, are warmly and quite fully detailed. The author’s voice as a professional historian is memorable and accessible. Much of the book concerns family background, but the story becomes more universally appealing when discussing the history of Polish settlement, the upstate New York region, and baseball.
Date Submitted: November 14, 2020
With sardonic charm, Pietrusza makes clear that small-town life retained its considerable appeal, regaling readers with descriptions of whistle-stop visits by presidents such as John F. Kennedy, comically bad small-town baseball games, and a guitar-loving cop. The author’s imaginative prose (“laid out in a particularly haphazard fashion as if dropped from the sky by a drunken engineer”) and self-deprecating humor (“a reaction to the fairly new-fangled wonder drug penicillin turned me blue and came very close to making this the world’s shortest autobiography”) will charm readers.
The author discloses painful family secrets, including a relative’s rape and subsequent stay at a state mental hospital, but largely keeps the narrative optimistic. Without formalized chapters, readers may be hoping for more structural guideposts to aid in comprehension, but Pietrusza’s story-telling skills carry the day. Anyone who has ever thought longingly about days gone by in picture-perfect small towns will devour these enjoyable reminiscences.
Takeaway: Pietrusza’s work is a striking, nostalgic look at the up-and-down fortunes of an evolving town in the 20th century, sure to entice those who long for the “good old days.”
Great for fans of: Earl Hamner’s Spencer’s Mountain, Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, Bill Geists’ Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: B
Dean Karayanis, Host, "The History Author Show":
"This book is just so much fun. Don’t even think about it or ask why."
"poignant and fascinating"