Sometimes a very good book comes to you by surprise.

I was scrolling through Libby, the library’s digital book app, looking for an audiobook for my daily walks. Not finding anything I’d heard of readily available, I spotted Winterland by Rae Meadow.

The blurb compared it to Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, a riveting Russian themed book. In a nutshell, two young girls were kidnapped from a remote Russian province. The story explores how their disappearance changes the lives of the once insular community over the course of a year.

Henry Holt and Co. 2022

Although Winterland only has Russia in common with that book, I’m so glad I picked it up. It is a story of ambition, love, honor, and loss with pinpricks of light shining through. And is particularly timely given the news and state of our world,

On a personal note, it brought be back to the exciting time when all eyes were on Romanian superstar, Nadia Comaneci, as she performed astounding feats. Along with Nellie Kim and Olga Korbut, these gymnasts spurred on a Russian gymnastic program predicated on devotion to the Motherland that would change the nature of women’s gymnastics from balletic performance to gravity defying acrobatics.

Spanning two decades, the novel opens in 1973 in a barely habitable Norlisk, Siberia. North of the arctic circle, there is sunlight only two months of the year and the temperature is commonly fifty below zero. It had been a gulag built by slave labor during 1950s. While it was not an area fit for people, it was rich in copper, nickel, and cadmium.

As the story opens, eight year old Anya Petrova is accepted into the Soviet gymnastics program. This is an honor that could change her entire family’s life. Her father, Yuri, who works in the copper mines is both proud and relieved.

Financially, since Anya is considered an asset to the State, they will take care of her while giving him renumeration. Yuri and and his wife, Katerina, first settled in Norlisk believing they could contribute to the good of the nation. Now, Yuri believes Anya will bring the Soviet Union glory, furthering the mission.

Yuri feels inadequate as a father since his wife, a former Bolshoi dancer and skeptic of their way of life, disappeared three years earlier. It is likely that her disillusionment with the party and their restrictive way of life got her in trouble. but despite the facts, he dreams she is alive somewhere, perhaps dancing again.

Another pivotal character is Vera Kuznetsova, a survivor of a ten year sentence of unspeakable horror in the Gulag. Along with her husband and young son, she was arrested during the purge of intellectuals. Both husband and son died there but when released she decided to remain where her family was buried. Her memories portend what Katerina’s fate might really have been. Vera, now in her eighties, plays a pivotal role as confidante and mother figure, first for Katerina, then for Anya.

The world of Russian gymnastics is what you might expect. It is harsh, demanding, relentless. The welfare of the girls is never considered. Stopping for pain or if injured is unacceptable. Anya’s coach, Anatoly, is gruff, cruel, pushes her hard through injury. While recognizing his future is dependent on her success makes him understandable, he is still thoroughly unlikable.

Without spoilers, interjected into the storyline is what happened to real gymnast, Elena Mukhina and her impact on Anya. This was something I didn’t know about but added a rich dimension to the storyline.

As Anya moves up and is headed for the Olympics and has potential to win gold, a fellow gymnast reminds her of the four stages of a gymnasts life:

“First you love it…Second you need it…you can’t live without it…Third is when you realize you don’t belong to yourself anymore… The fourth is when you still want it, but nobody wants you anymore.

Believe me when I tell you that you are with Anya every step of this journey.

Rae Meadows, author

Rae Meadows is an extraordinary writer. She has captured time, place, atmosphere, ambition. But more than that, you have a window into what resilience really means. This is her fifth book and I intend to read the others.

As I listened to Winterland, I was astounded by the reader Daphne Kouma’s acting. As you know, the reader can make or break a book and her performance, the credible Russian accents and voicing, further enhanced the experience. It made an excellent read even better.

It also awakened gratitude in me as I listened to the chill of this book in sunshine!

Available on this website, Amazon, Barnes&Noble and your local bookstore

Jan Marin Tramontano has given us a novel of love and disenchantment, of dashed dreams and sustained hope. Sexy, unflinching, pinpoint accurate in its portrayal of parenting, this is an exhilarating work.

James Robison, novelist, screenwriter, poet Recipient of Rosenthal, Whiting, and Pushcart Awards

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