Book review: ‘Winterland,’ a story of Soviet gymnastics, is chillingly good – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Especially around the holidays, nostalgia can seem simple. Thoughts drift back to younger years, snowy mornings opening presents by the fire, all that jazz. In fact, nostalgia is complex and can even be dangerous. Case in point: nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

The past three decades of Russian history have not been a cakewalk, and Vladimir Putin rose to power exploiting the perception that life was better when the country ran a communist empire. Russians who supported Putin got Soviet authoritarianism but without the empire — and as Ukraine is currently making clear, the Eastern Bloc does not want to be reassembled.

Nostalgia for the USSR is not limited to Russia. The other day I saw an American wearing a CCCP hat, complete with hammer and sickle insignia. Why? Perhaps out of support for communist ideals, perhaps out of irony.

“Winterland,” the fifth novel by Rae Meadows, is at once a warm evocation of family life in the Soviet Union and a damnation of the country’s systemic repression. Its young protagonist is a gifted gymnast who comes to realize her body and mind are simply grist for an Olympic medal mill.

Meadows sweeps a century of history into her narrative by introducing an elderly neighbor who’s close to the young gymnast, who is named Anya, and her single father. The disappearance of Anya’s mother is a mystery explored throughout the book.

Through flashbacks, we learn about the neighbor’s experience in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution: She and her family were consigned to a labor camp for supposed disloyalty. The main action of “Winterland” is set in the 1970s, when Soviet leaders were still trying to brush Stalin’s terrors under the rug, and Anya’s neighbor struggles to make sense of a long life shaped by a profound, needless hurt.

The author’s sensitive exploration of her story’s historical context makes “Winterland” a sports story like none other. Stories about driven, talented athletes are commonplace, but Anya’s motivations are eerily hollowed. She wants to be famous, but only because fame means safety. She wants fortune, but only because her father is working himself to death. She wants to achieve athletic excellence, but her triumphs don’t bring joy — only a lack of its opposite.

Those circumstances could make Anya inert as a character, but Meadows brings Anya’s inner and outer worlds to life with vivid vignettes. The girl and her father bus to the gym on a sunny Siberian morning. Anya worries about her friends and their harrowing lives, both on and off the mat. She rides a Ferris wheel, gazing down at a domineering coach who suddenly looks tiny.

Anya is both repelled and fascinated by her coach, a chain-smoking taskmaster who makes her push her body to the breaking point. She recognizes that he, too, is a product of the system: His role is as scripted as hers, and if either of them dropped out, replacements would immediately be drafted.

Meadows also acknowledges, implicitly, what her readers have learned about elite women’s gymnastics over the past several years. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse of young athletes wasn’t limited to the USSR, or to the 20th century. The kind of treatment suffered by US gymnasts at the hands of their team doctor isn’t a central focus of “Winterland,” but Meadows shows us, through Anya’s eyes, how such men took advantage of the trust placed in them.

Though Meadows regularly shifts perspective among her characters, sliding back and forth across decades of Soviet history, it’s always clear where we are in the story. There’s suspense as Anya becomes an Olympic contender (her peers in the novel include both real-life gymnasts of the era and fictional characters inspired by them), but the excitement is undercut by the fact that no possible athletic triumph will free Anya and her loved ones from the government’s iron grip.

Meadows, now based in Brooklyn, formerly lived in Minnesota. Northlanders will easily relate to the Siberian city where most of the book is set, with its extreme winters and sunny summers. Norilsk is also familiar with its juxtaposition of natural wonders and extractive industry.

An audiobook narrated by Daphne Kouma, who pulls off the rare feat of voicing a child character without sounding the least bit cartoonish. Anya is a naive elementary student when the story opens, but she’s also smart and wary, and Kouma captures that intelligence — as well as convincingly portraying very different characters, like Anya’s rumbling bear of a coach.

By the end of the book, we’re completely invested in Anya’s quest; not her quest for gold, but to be able to choose her own path through life. The right of self-determination, Winterland reminds us, is nothing to take for granted.

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