Review of the Day: The Turning
All right, you adults out there. I have within my power the ability to make you feel old, even if you’re a mere slip of a twenty-year-old. Here I go: “The Turning” by Gloria Whelan is a historical novel set in the spring of 1991. I’ll repeat that. A historical novel …. from 1991. Feel old yet? I certainly do. Of course, the democratization of Russia is ideal historical fiction fare. You would think though that the politics involved make it difficult to pare it down for teen novels, to say nothing of children’s books. Whelan seems to have no difficulty doing so, however. “The Turning” feels at times like a slight modernization of the classic Garbo film, “Ninotchka”, and at others like a perfectly interesting tale of a young ballerina finding her way in the world. Part political thriller (child-friendly, of course) part tale of personal growth, Whelan casts the still tricky territory of 1991 Russia as her background and it’s up to child readers to keep up with the ride. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Her name is Tatiana, or Tanya to her loved ones, and she belongs to the truly impressive Kirov Ballet Corps. Seventeen-year-old Tanya has worked endlessly to improve and belong to the ballet corps practically all her life. But it’s 1991 Communist Russia and change is in the wind. The political situation in the country is shaky at best, with free elections coming up between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. At home, Tanya’s grandfather is involved politically in protests and her boyfriend is faking priceless Russian icons to pay for his sick grandmother’s medicine. With everything so repressive, Tanya dreams of escaping Russia once her ballet company goes on tour in Paris. Yet as events, both large and small, start to unravel, Tatiana must decide whether it is braver to flee or stay.
Whelan has always straddled the tween/teen market meticulously with her writing. And “The Turning” for its part, seems to rest snugly in the former department rather than the latter. There are references to sexy thong panties and there is definitely the fact that Tanya herself is seventeen, but in general I think that eleven and twelve-year-old readers will find their heroine’s age intriguing rather than off-putting. Now there is a scene where a nasty father of a child tries to make his kid sleep with a dirty old man. Still, it’s told in such a way as to come off as unpleasant rather than blatant (and, should you need to put your own mind to rest, he doesn’t succeed).
As a character, Tanya is self-centered, but not overly so. She’s redeemable, certainly. Plus the characters in this book, by and large, have all three of their dimensions firmly in place. There’s a wonderfully evil American art collector that leads Tanya’s boyfriend Sasha down the path of destruction with great charm and aplomb. I liked that Whelan could make a character seem immediately charming and thoughtful and then turn that person’s personality believably inside out in the course of just a few pages. Alongside such people, the story itself moves at a fast and interesting clip. I think kids will definitely find much to interest them in Tanya’s life. Once the politics start getting hot and heavy, however, I’m not sure how many readers will be willing to stick it out and get through them.
All right. Let’s talk politics then. I’ll just mention some of the more interesting aspects of the book and you can draw your own conclusions. The most peculiar of these involves none other than Ronald Reagan. At one point Tanya’s grandparents are discussing how Gorbachev “allowed the wall to fall in Berlin.” Tanya’s grandfather says this is only because he was “goaded into it” because “The American president, Ronald Reagan, had challenged, ‘President Gorbachev, take down that wall.’” Now depending on your politics, this is a mighty controversial thing to say. The same might also be said of Whelan’s portrayal of Yeltsin. Yeltsin, of whom I have no particular opinion, is seen in this book as a very very big hero. I’m no historian, and my knowledge of Russian history is spotty at best. I would have liked, therefore, to have seen a Bibliography or Works Cited page giving a little more information on this period in time. As it is, what happens in this book could be based on historical fact or it could be based on conjecture. We just don’t know, nor do we have any way to learn more about this moment in history. Seems a shame. Even an Afterword giving some background to the events discussed in this book would have been welcome. No such Afterword is forthcoming, however.
I wonder vaguely who the ideal child reader will be who picks up this book. I don’t have that many twelve-year-olds wandering up the Reference Desk requesting books set during the death the Cold War. My inclination is to think that kids who love ballerinas will find a friend in Tatiana. I have not read other books by Gloria Whelan, but it is clear that she is a talented author. This book could have used a little more background and certainly some justification of its view of 1991 Russian politics. Still, it’s a pleasant read and covers territory that few children’s books have chanced to thus far. I wouldn’t rush out to purchase it immediately, however.
Notes On the Cover: This is a style that was conjured up by Harper Collins for some of Whelan’s past works, notably “”Homeless Bird”. It's rather lovely, with the blue and purple background overlaid with a repeating pattern of flowers and leaves. The image of the ballerina may attract the ballet audience as well. Actually, the dustjacket wasn’t what I found most impressive with this book. Remove the jacket itself and underneath you’ll find that the book’s cloth cover is imprinted with these purple/pink shiny almost Celtic knots, nine to the front. The cover itself is a deep brownish purple that complements this truly gorgeous layout. It kills me that I find this so much more attractive than the dustjacket. Lackaday.