Book Review

Winterland

Winterland

  • Author: Rae Meadows
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: November 29, 2022
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Thank you to NetGalley and Henry Holt and Co. for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: mention of death, mention of death of a child, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, fat shaming, blood, alcoholism, rape, drug use, molestation

Perfection has a cost . . .

Reminiscent of Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me and Julia Phillips’s Disappearing EarthWinterland tells the story of a previous era, shockingly pertinent today, shaped by glory and loss and finding light where none exists.

In the Soviet Union in 1973, there is perhaps no greater honor for a young girl than to be chosen to be part of the famed USSR gymnastics program. So when eight-year-old Anya is tapped, her family is thrilled. What is left of her family, that is. Years ago her mother disappeared. Anya’s only confidant is her neighbor, an older woman who survived unspeakable horrors during her ten years in a Gulag camp—and who, unbeknownst to Anya, was also her mother’s confidant and might hold the key to her disappearance. As Anya moves up the ranks of competitive gymnastics, and as other girls move down, Anya soon comes to realize that there is very little margin of error for anyone.

I’m old enough that I remember growing up when the Soviet Union still existed. When the Olympics were dominated by their gymnasts, and as a little girl, I would sit glued to the television and watch these girls perform incredible feats. But I had no idea what actually went into the making of these gymnasts, and I was way too young to really understand the politics of the times.

This book provided a lot of insight into the inner workings of the Soviet Union, not at the political level, but at the individual levels. And I think what made this book more powerful was that it wasn’t just told from Anya’s POV, but from the people who are most important to her—her father and her neighbor Vera, who serves as a surrogate grandmother. 

They all live in Norilsk, Siberia. Vera chose to stay there after being released from a Gulag, but Anya’s parents chose to move there as devout participants in the Communist Party. However, once Anya’s mother left the Bolshoi Ballet, she struggled with what seemed to be depression and disillusionment with Party ideals, even as her husband stubbornly clings to his own idealism. Vera is older, and as someone who lived through the Revolution, she has her own sense of religious faith, which isn’t encouraged or even really allowed under Communism. 

Anya herself is young when the book starts, but is already wise to how her world works. Speaking about certain things has a cost, which can be severe. Saying things against the Party can get parents or children passed over for opportunities at the least, or sent to Gulags and killed in worst case scenarios. Anya learns this first-hand when she receives a spot in the gymnastics training program over a peer who is equally if not more qualified.

But what she quickly learns is that the Soviet Union has control over every single aspect of her life. And that she’s just a tiny cog in a machine that doesn’t especially value her outside of what she can bring to the table. Once she stops being able to perform, she is no longer valuable to her country. She sees it happen to others, and knows that is just the way things work. 

Reading this book felt claustrophobic at times. When reading the parts set in Norilsk, I tried to picture what it would be like to actually live in a place where the sun doesn’t shine at all for several months of the year, and negative temperatures prevail for much of the time, along with the pollution that resulted from the mining supporting the town. Combined with the fears of anyone being able to speak out against you and get you sent to a Gulag, and having to look over your shoulder, it all felt so oppressive. Even as Anya rose higher through the ranks of competitive gymnastics, it always felt like the other shoe was about to drop at any time. 

Overall, this story was absolutely fascinating. The way that the author wove the three narratives together with flashbacks of what happened to Anya’s mother, and did so beautifully. Even though it wasn’t an easy story to read, I found myself unable to put the book down. It was fascinating to get inside the mindset of a champion gymnast, seeing how they are able to tune out everything going on to focus single-mindedly on a goal, dedicating all of their physical and mental energy towards reaching that goal. In addition, we also get to see people come to terms with their own faith and what happens when that is challenged—whether that is faith in religion, communism, their body, family, or something else entirely. 

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