Winterland by Rae Meadows
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: November 29, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Childhood, Cultural, Historical
Does anyone else remember the USSR dominance in women’s gymnastics in the 1970s? When a name like Ludmilla Tourischeva might be the only Russian an American knew? A new novel, Winterland, takes place in the years when the balletic old guard of gymnasts like Tourischeva is giving way to fearless sprites like Olga Korbut. It’s the story of Anya, a young girl whose whole life is shaped by her dream to compete for her country.
Anya’s father is a true believer in Communism. As such he and his wife, Katerina moved from Moscow to a mining town in Siberia that was once known as an infamous work camp. When Anya is five her mother disappears. Three years later Anya succeeds in her dream to train to possibly become a national gymnast. For this, she leaves school to spend every day training with other little girls deemed to be potential elite athletes. In theory, it is the highest honor, but in actuality the gym is decrepit, there are no real doctors or safety equipment, and the only benefit is a stipend sent to Yuri which allows him to buy better food. From these young girls’ bodies and dreams are supposed to come world class athletes at any cost.
Author Rae Meadows splits Winterland into two narratives—that of Anya as she strives to get out of Siberia and into the USSR’s prestigious Round Lake training facility and Vera, an older woman who lives in their building after having been released from the gulag. She was one of Katerina’s only friends and is both grandmother and a source of information for Anya. As Anya moves into the future, always the future, Vera finds herself returning to her past. Both the old woman and the young girl provide a startling look into an authoritarian regime where, even as a prized commodity, your body is not your own.
I love historical fiction and gymnastics so Winterland was an easy choice for me. Meadows bases the novel on real people and events in Soviet gymnastics at the time, upping the fascination factor. Neither of these elements would have been enough without strong writing, but Meadows achieves this. She clearly conveys the depressing collusion between the mind of a little girl warped by unrealistic expectations and a system designed with no advocacy or protection for that child’s needs. As Russia asserts its obsession for power with its invasion of Ukraine, the parallels between war and sport, while subtle, are clear in the fictional Winterland. Winning at any cost, even that of human lives, is paramount.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Henry Holt and Co. in exchange for an honest review.*