by Rae Meadows
Thank you to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Co. for the chance to review this book. **
In the book, Vera gives Anya chocolate every time she comes to visit. It was forbidden for Anya to eat, but it represented a small escape from her unrelenting life. Try your own chocolate dessert with this recipe for Shokoladnaya Kolbasa (Russian Chocolate Salami) from Damn, Tasty.
Like many girls, I loved watching Women’s Gymnastics during the Olympics. The sport combines elegance and grace with sheer power and determination, and it is intoxicating to watch. But, there’s an underlying element to competitive gymnastics that most of us know exists–one that is far more ruthless than we would care to admit. It is against this backdrop that Rae Meadows tells her story in the book, Winterland.
Set in the USSR in the 1970s, Meadows explores the Soviet practice of state-sponsored sports schools. The main character, Anya, is only 8 years old when the book opens. Her mother, Katerina, disappeared one day, leaving Anya to be raised by her heartbroken father, Yuri. Yuri works in the copper mines of Norilsk, and money is tight. Once a leader in the local Communist party, Yuri has lost much of his influence after rumors that Katerina was turning against the party. Anya knows acceptance into the sports school is one of her only opportunities at rising above her situation, and she is elated when she gets accepted.
Brutality seeps through every aspect of Anya’s life. She trains for hours upon hours a day at the sports school, often despite injuries or exhaustion. Her food is limited in order to give her an ideal gymnast’s body. The cold, arctic air of Norilsk chills her bones. And, of course, Anya and the friends and family around her must be cautious of what they say in fear of the Communist Party. While Anya attacks her life with a cold hardness and determination, there is one ray of sunshine that always seems to soften her– her old neighbor, Vera. Vera becomes Anya’s mother figure, especially as her memories of Katerina begin to fade. However, Vera’s story is just as brutal. She was once a prisoner sentenced to the gulags, and her stories from that dark time may have contributed to Katerina’s departure. Still, Vera grounds Anya in love, even when everything around her is cold and hard.
Winterland follows Anya’s journey as she rises up the ranks in the gymnastics world. There is a bit of gymnastics history thrown in as Meadows incorporates Olga Korbut, Nadia Comăneci, and other prominent USSR and Romanian gymnasts into the story. We feel Anya’s pain and suffering, both physically and mentally, as she is programmed to perform for the USSR. We also feel her restlessness when it is all over.
Even though it is not a feel-good story, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Meadows lets you peek behind the glittery curtains to the harsh world of gymnastics. That is heightened by the reality of the Communist Party’s brutality– how citizens lived in fear but accepted the living conditions because they felt they were “being taken care of.” It also explores uncomfortable truths about the impact a parent can have when they are not fully present in their child’s life. There are a couple of story lines that remain incomplete (intentionally), so that might bother readers who like resolution. However, this is one of those stories that will stick with you long after you close the pages of the book.
My Rating System Explained 5 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: This was an amazing book, and I can't stop thinking about it. It impacted me emotionally or changed my perspective. My thoughts keep flickering back to it at random times throughout the day. I will absolutely recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs. 4 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: This was a really good book. Parts of it stuck with me, and I might mention it in a conversation. There is a high likelihood that I will recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs. 3 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️: I liked this book. It allowed me to escape from reality for a while. While I might tell somebody about it if I think it will interest them, I will probably not suggest it to one of my book clubs. 2 Stars ⭐️⭐️: There's something about this book that I didn't like. I wasn't willing to go all the way down to a one-star rating, but I'm definitely not digging it. I may recognize that this book is not for me, but it might be for other people. I will not recommend it to my friends or one of my book clubs. 1 Star ⭐️: My rarest rating. I really didn't like this book. Something in the story line upset me, and I probably "hate-read" the majority of the book. Not only will I not recommend it, but I will actively tell people that I did not like it.