Arcady’s Goal

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Arcady’s Goal

by Eugene Yelchin

Age: 9+

Interests: history, U.S.S.R., orphans, soccer

Henry Holt and Company: 2014

Also by this author: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

This is a memorable look at the Stalinist era in the U.S.S.R., and what life was like for everyday people, particularly for the relatives of “enemies of the state”. Arcady’s parents were arrested and (presumably) executed and as the book opens we find him living in a prison-like orphanage with other children of political “enemies”. At that time the government policy was not only to crush opposition, but also to punish the entire families of political dissidents.

With nothing to do at the camp but play soccer, Arcady develops his skills and soon outshines all the other boys. He harbours an ambitious dream of playing some day on the Red Army soccer team. One day inspectors arrive at the camp and the corrupt warden trots Arcady out to show off. After a series of brutally rough one-on-one games, one of the inspectors makes the astonishing decision to adopt Arcady. Arcady assumes it’s because of his soccer skills – perhaps the man is really a soccer scout?

But something is fishy about this quiet and very nervous inspector. It turns out that his wife was also taken away as an enemy of the state, and, penniless, he was only able to get the inspector’s job by using an assumed name. He was drawn to Arcady not because of his soccer abilities but because of his tremendous courage, a quality that he himself has been lacking ever since losing his wife.

The man attempts to start a soccer team for Arcady to play on, but rumours have spread about the camp the boy came from, and the other fathers refuse to let their sons play with an “enemy of the state”. And when the man tries to get a form signed to allow Arcady to try out for the Red Army soccer training camp for boys, the bureaucrat in charge refuses – it turns out he knows the man’s true identity, for he was the one who falsely accused the man’s wife, leading to her arrest. It is now obvious that he did it solely to advance his own reputation and get this government job.

The man is crushed by this setback and, distraught about their future, goes to a “tearoom” and gets drunk. Waiting outside, Arcady runs into a young friend, and tells him what happened. The friend and his father hand Arcady their own signed letter for the soccer tryout, rekindling Arcady’s dreams. He calculates that if he is good enough to become a soccer superstar, the government will turn a blind eye to their past and they will be able to start a new life in far-off Moscow. He just has to convince his new father that it is worth the risk, which he does, and the novel ends with them driving off in a borrowed truck to the soccer tryouts, hopeful for the future.

This book is less about soccer than about the physical and mental cruelty of life under Stalin, painting an effective picture of that era’s dysfunctional system of political corruption, harsh repression, and general fear and paranoia. The author Eugene Yelchin was born in the former Soviet Union and spent his childhood and youth there before moving to the States. He has also written about life under Stalin in the very good YA novel Breaking Stalin’s Nose.

Punctuated liberally with arresting illustrations (also by Yelchin, see examples below), this is a fairly easy and quick read, though the heavy historical and political context makes it more suitable for ages nine and up. The violence and threat of the era are always present but kept for the most part in the background. Told in the first person, the story stays right at  Arcady’s level as he slowly realizes the truth about his adopted father and the difficult situation they are both in. Like Yelchin’s other novel, this story does not end in outright victory, but in hopeful resolve. Even in a children’s book, the common folk under such a repressive regime are not able to vanquish their enemies, but they can band together and continue the struggle in whatever small way they are able. In harsh times, simply surviving is a victory.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.