Reread of The Last Four Harry Potter Novels: My Thoughts
Book Review: The Last Cuentista by Donna Barbra Higuera

Book Review: Winterland by Rae Meadows

“I have dreams where I am back in the gym,” Elena said. “That feeling of control and mastery. That feeling of having a secret power. Defying the rules of the natural order.”

WinterlandI’ve been excited to read Winterland, by Rae Meadows, since I first heard about it last fall. It tells the story of Anya, who lives in Norilsk, an industrial town in Russia’s far north. Her father works at the copper mine and her mother, who was a ballerina, vanished when she was five. She goes to ballet lessons for a while, but she does not love it. Instead, Anya loves doing cartwheels and somersaults with her friend Sveta, who can also do aerials and back handsprings. When the national sports program tryouts for gymnastics come to her school, both she and Sveta try out, but only Anya makes it. 

In theory, this is a novel about gymnastics. The author is a practicing gymnast and she gets the details of the sport exactly right. The brutality of the sport and its impact on young bodies, mixed with the exhilaration of finally perfecting a new trick or move, of feeling like you are flying, come across well. Anya, as a gymnast training in the Russian of the 1970s and early 80s, goes through the pain of injuries (that the coaches never give enough time to heal), a sexually perverse doctor, and the exhaustion that the sport’s rigor demands. But she also loves her sport more and more, learning new skills, perfecting her triple twist—until, of course, she doesn’t.

(I don’t know if this is the trajectory of all sports, or even all gymnasts within gymnastics. But it is a trajectory I experienced myself, and watched many of my teammates go through. I even remember talking to my best gymnastics friend, Kristi, about how it used to be fun but now was just terrifying. Even Simone Biles got the twisties. And the fact is, it is a sport that leaves life-long scars, both the physical proof of injuries and the emotional impacts that in a sense never leave.)

In actuality, this is a novel about how a large political system impacts individual lives. Anya is one little part of this system; if she wins she brings honor to Russia—as well as proof that communism is the best way to be in this world. Her coach’s work isn’t to make her the gymnast she could be but the athlete the system needs her to be. Her father, a devout member of the communist party, pushed Anya’s mother to move and work in Norilsk (rather than continuing to dance in the Bolshoi ballet) because it was how he thought they could best serve their country, but she struggled to feel the same. Vera, one of Anya’s neighbors, survived the camp that was near Norilsk, but lost everything. And Anya, as she works to become an Olympian, is altered by the damage that work does to her in ways she will never heal from. And Elena, who is based on the real-life gymnast Elena Mukhina, who became a paraplegic after attempting the Thomas salto (a move that is now illegal): she literally sacrificed the normal use of her body in an attempt to win a gold medal for her country.  

It would be easy to say this is a condemnation of Russia or of communism, but it really isn’t. It’s more of an observation about how no one can escape (alive) any political system we humans build. None of them are perfect, however much we need one, and all of them impact us in negative ways.

I did love this book. I felt compelled back into Anya’s story. I had some quibbles with the plot construction; I wanted more character development and the end felt scattered.

But it reminded me all over again of how we only get this one chance to live, and how our lives are formed not only by the choices we make—but by how the systems around us work to influence those choices in ways that aren’t always the best for us as individuals.  

Plus, Anya and her mother are connected by a bracelet. How couldn't I love that story? 


The comments to this entry are closed.