“Winterland” by Rae Meadows

Genre: Historical Fiction Winterland
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Pub. Date: Nov. 29, 2022

“I Will Send Rain” by Rae Meadows captivated me. Set in 1930s Oklahoma, during the dustbowls. It showcased her knack for historical fiction. Her latest historical novel, “Winterland,” is equally powerful. This time we get a brutal look at 1970s Soviet gymnastics, and culture as the athletes prepare for the Olympics. Meadows succeeds once again in restoring the urgency of a distant time and place.

In 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, a man named Yuri meets his future wife, Katerina, on the streets of Moscow. Young and ambitious, they both hope to leave their mark on modernizing the USSR. Along with their friends, they join the Communist League of Youth. From there they are sent to Norilsk, North Siberia, to mine copper. Their youthful optimism is relatable, even to an American reader. As their friends succumb to frostbite, scurvy, and starvation, they return to Moscow. Yuri and Katerina remain in Siberia, refusing to surrender their ideals. Their daughter, Anya, becomes the focus of the story.

Anya grows up in Norilsk, where we now experience the frigid Siberian landscape through a child’s eyes. Her youth is defined by the mysterious disappearance of her mother when she is six years old. Vera, an older woman who lives next door, becomes her only confidant. It is through Vera’s stories that we glimpse the most heart-wrenching details of life in the forced labor Gulag camps, where enemies of the party were sent throughout Stalin’s reign. These well-written, hard-to-read scenes are eerily reminiscent of the German concentration camps with which readers are likely more familiar.

There is plenty of Russian history in this book but its heart and soul is Anya’s life as an athlete. In 1973, at the age of nine, Anya is selected to train as a gymnast. Her childhood as she knew it was over. We watch her rise to the top of an ultra-competitive sport, always under the thumb of her abusive trainers. The author will make you cringe as Anya’s friends and teammates are worked into states of disfigurement. The trainers have no sympathy for them; it is all about money and Russian glory. When Anya’s career is over, she is forced to teach gymnastics back in Norilsk. Not much of a thank you. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Yuri migrates to the US, like many Russians did at the time. Despite his hardships, he keeps his communist party card; the dreams of one’s youth are powerful things.

Every section of Meadows’ novel is heartbreaking in this way. From the dashed dreams of an idealist’s youth, to the terror of achieving athletic excellence in a deeply corrupt system, everything is infused with its rightful poignancy. The many broader lessons of Russian history and politics conveyed throughout the novel do nothing to lessen its intimacy. “Winterland” is also sprinkled with Russian poetry, a touch that felt earned. I thought of the line from the novel “Dr. Zhivago”: “But if people love poetry, they love poets. And nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” My only criticism is that I was expecting to learn more about the disappearance of Anya’s mother. But then again, many Russians have disappeared without answers. The novel is unflinching in this way. I highly recommend it.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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