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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Arcady's Goal, by wirtten and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2014. $18.50 ages 10 and up

"My life with Ivan Ivanych? First class. We fight, yes, on occasion, but I let him win every time. He wants me to wash up in the morning? No problem. Brush my teeth, top and bottom? I do it. I don't spit on the floor. I don't cuss. In return, three square meals a day with extra helpings."

I remember every single scene from Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose, and I will do the same with this companion story. Arcady introduces himself:

"I'm a risk taker. That's why I score like crazy. I score on the go, with the ball in the air, with my back to the goal. I score in all weather. Dirt, mud, or ice, I score."

Arcady is a soccer star; that is not all that he is. He is a boy living in an orphanage that houses the children of people considered enemies of the Soviet state. The conditions are appalling. Arcady's soccer skills get him paltry extra rations, when his most important skill is simply surviving. With the arrival of government inspectors imminent, the children are given direct instructions:

"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. It has given you free education. But what did your parents do? They were accused of crimes against our people. They were punished and left you orphans. Remember, children, you are better off without such parents. When the government inspectors visit us today, show your loyalty and gratitude. No wisecracks. No monkey business. Questions?"

As entertainment for said inspectors, Butterball bribes Arcady to play in a series of contests against older, stronger boys. The inspectors leave, satisfied that things as are they should be at the orphanage. Imagine then the surprise, when one of the inspectors returns shortly after to arrange to adopt the young athlete. Will his life be easier? Leaving the orphanage with Ivan Ivanych, Arcady does not know what to expect.

Russia, under Stalin's rule, was a terrible place. Arcady's 'prison' is evidence of that. Should he feel shame at his parents' fate for daring to speak out? He faces pain and hunger every day at the hands of Butterball and the orphans who share his fate. The conditions are brutal, and never improve. Soccer is his saving grace, and it is what makes Ivan notice him. Can Ivan help to make Arcady's dream of playing for the Russian national team a reality?

Ivan needs Arcady as much as Arcady needs Ivan. They are both victims of Stalinist propaganda. Ivan, a teacher, has lost his wife and his job. They had no children of their own, and Ivan sees Arcady as a way to honor his wife's memory. As the story unfolds, we become aware of his motives, and his growing love for the young boy:

"I'll tell you anyway," he says, grinning. "When these grown men chased after their sons around the soccer field, I had a feeling I didn't expect. Envy maybe. I envied them having fun together. Having fun is normal, right? I thought why couldn't Arcady and I have fun? Enjoy a normal life together. Can you understand that?"

While they cannot escape the events that have brought them to where they are, they might just be able to form a new family in the face of tremendous odds. In doing so, they provide readers with a clear look at the lasting impact of a totalitarian state where no one was really safe. We also realize that despite the many atrocities, there can be hope when there is love.

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