from the torn fabric of
broken Russian families
Eugene Yelchin has become a literal and visual prose poet of damaged youth in the Stalin era.
With "Breaking Stalin's Nose" in 2011 and now with "Arcady's Goal," Yelchin a powerful writer and a brilliant illustrator who tells his stories simultaneously in words and images gives us tales of children taken from their families in the U.S.S.R., during a time when paranoia was overwhelming and people lived in fear of Stalin's vicious rule.
Dark, terrible times. In "Breaking Stalin's Nose," a boy loses his father an officer in State Security when a neighbor informs on him, for what crime, we don't know, but because the neighbor wants the father's room in their crowded house.
In "Arcady's Goal," we meet a boy who is already in an orphanage because his parents were arrested as enemies of the state. That makes him an enemy of the state, too.
Misery fills the lives of children in these books. Overcrowded living conditions, poverty, starvation.
Yet Yelchin ends both books with faint glimmers of light and hope: Modest chances that these beleaguered children will find something close to happy lives.
In "Arcady's Goal," Arcady is the best soccer player at a prison camp for children. The director is called "Butterball" by the inmates.
"'Children of the enemies of the people!' Butterball booms through the bullhorn. 'Do not forget what our humane government has done for you. The government has put a roof over your heads, has given you food, shoes, and medicine.'"
Butterball, who is believed to steal food rations from the children, giving them only a bit of bread each day, has overstated the benevolence of the government.
But Butterball cuts a deal with Arcady to give more food to both Arcady and to whoever Arcady beats in soccer matches, in demonstration games before some "inspectors."
Arcady does have fabulous soccer skills, and is so impressive that one of the inspectors adopts him, and takes him from the prison camp.
"I step over the metal strip of the threshold, and when I look up, I'm in the street. Out of nowhere, a bunch of birds shoots up into the clear sky, flapping their wings."
Everyone who sees him, Arcady believes, is happy for him.
"Even a policeman in a crisp new uniform, looking severely at me, is clearly a good man, who is trying hard to hide his joy for me because he's on duty."
The inspector, Ivan Ivanych, takes Arcady on a long walk to get to his house, which is set back from a street in an orchard populated by birds.
"Here I lose my nerve. I haven't been inside a regular home since I was in diapers. I don't even know what's in there. He waits patiently, holding the door for me."
When he finally enters, Arcady is given his own bedroom, with his own bed. He is allowed to eat too much food and drink too much milk, which leads him to eventually vomit on the hand that has fed him.
Arcady is very suspicious of Ivan Ivanych, but boy and man undertake a long dance, with the man showing the boy the most kindness he's ever known, and the boy finally beginning to understand how and why the man is trying to help him. Ivan Ivanych, it turns out, is trying to create the family his late wife wanted, but wasn't given before her untimely death.
It is a theme with Yelchin damaged threads of torn-apart families, somehow weaving themselves into new families, even in the face of the paranoid horrors of the Stalin regime.
Another theme is revealed in that Arcady's biggest dream is to be a part of the national soccer team.
In "Breaking Stalin's Nose," young Sasha wants to be a member of the Young Soviet Pioneers.
In both books, these children, who have known only cruelty from their government, still have national pride. It is, perhaps, a peek inside the famous Russian soul. Or, maybe, it's just an image of blind patriotism from people who just don't know anything better.
Yelchin, a Russian who emigrated to the United States, is clearly haunted by his family's experiences there, and has words for us about that before and after the actual story of Arcady.
I'll leave his closing words for you to discover when you read this beautiful, meaningful book, but will tell you about the photograph that serves as the foreword: It is of the Red Army Soccer Club in 1945. "The captain of the team is in the middle row, third from the right," Yelchin tells us. "He is Arcady Yelchin, my father."
Email John Orr at email@example.com