SPRING IN SIBERIA
Red Hen Press
$18.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: 1985. Russia. As the Soviet Union disintegrates and Western capitalism spreads its grip across their land, the Morozov family finds itself consigned to the remote, icy wastes of Siberia. It is here that their only child, Alexey, is born.
A sweet and gentle schoolboy, Alexey discovers that reciting poetry learnt by heart calms his fears. That winter gales can be battled with self-invented games, and solace found through his grandmother’s rituals and potions. But when Alexey’s classmate, the son of KGB agents, confesses his love, the desire of two boys to be together clashes violently with the mad world around them.
Exploring the healing power of literature, the magic of first love, and the ways our family and homeland can save (or shatter) us, Spring in Siberia is a coming-of-age novel that, in the darkest of times, glows with hope and the yearning for freedom to be oneself—completely.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.
My Review: A sweet, gentle childhood spent among adults who love him doesn't mean Alexey/Artem wasn't always made aware of how different he was from other boys. His father's mother, whose earthy peasant lifeway he came to root inside, never made anything easy but always taught him that he, and he alone, was responsible for his life by never excusing him from the work of wrestig food for his supper from the unforgiving Earth of Siberia. She taught him to accept the gift of belonging where you plant yourself with her stories of her own early life spent in the Russian west before she was sent to Siberia to care for her brother and then made her life there.
This lesson, above all, would serve the young man well: Make your own life, and thus your own happiness.
The entirety of Artem's...do pardon, Alexey's...life was spent in upheaval and dislocation as the old Soviet Union collapsed and a new old country Russia was (re)born. Being a child with a firm grounding in self-reliance, he takes the new world in his stride. I found his mother's transformation from a depressed, moping lump into a purposeful and energetic capitalist very interesting...and Alexey's trotting right along behind her, using the first money he ever earns by selling flower arrangements on a set of beautifully bound Pushkin books he sees in the local post office. It challenges this planned-economy-raised kid's willpower to save his money instead of spend it well beyond its breaking point, which everyone here should probably relate to. He sees his very first TV commercials and nothing on this wide green Earth will do but he must have some vile, neon-colored sludge to drink...much to his grandmother's appalled confusion, as he's been working with her to pick and preserve wild berries his whole life. What is suddenly so appealing about this new stuff?
In this quiet little moment in a boy's life, the entire tragedy-to-come of Russia: An old, bad system ends with nothing to replace it and a new on with inscrutable rules that aren't like the old rules confuses the bejabbers out of most people who aren't like Alexey's freshly liberated mother.
Her love for her son isn't smooth...he's mistaken for a girl a lot, is clearly a femboy, and is bullied mercilessly. Alexey's father, less successfully capitalist than his wife, is repulsed by the growing strangeness of his only child; the family disintegrates under the many stresses of the world. As Alexey enters adolescence, his isolation from his peers is ameliorated by the love of Anton, expressed in a sweet, sweet, strange and menacing scene on a balcony. Things for th young lovers go poorly, as one would expect them to, given the world's homophobia. Anton and Alexey, eventually, are driven apart by adult cruelty and hatred. How that plays out is so deeply sad, and so universally relatable, that I wanted to jump into the story and shepherd them through the hateful nastiness of small-souled bigots.
Alexey, smart as a whip and hell-bent on not being like Them, goes to university on a "red diploma"—a free pass into the higher education system. He chooses, as did Artem the Author, to train as a journalist in a country about to lose even its unfree statee-supported press. He's trained to observe from birth by being Other, so he has a clear vision of how unfair the new system is to the old system's relicts. Here, then, is the main pleasure I got from reading this sad, oft-told tale of growing up Other in a world that genuinely and utterly, in a bone-deep way, hates you for being yourself.
It's not just gay people, it's not just smart people, it's Them...whoever it is that isn't like the one hating with all their tiny soul's capacty...and every living one of us is Them to someone. Alexey realizes this in a blinding, road-to-Damascus moment in a school hallway.
Life is cruel to Others. This well-honed spear of a story is thrust into one's readerly guts. You'e never again going to look at that butch girl or that femme of a boy and think "Other" after reading this story. Artem/Alexey is a human being and, as we follow him through a rough and turbulent upbringing in a hostile world without a safety net of any material, social, or spiritual sort, we can no longer pretend that we're not all guilty of glossing over the costs of our own quiet little prejudices. Emma Goldman, social activist and poet whose lines are on the Statue of Liberty in New York's front door to the USA, said:
There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another.