Friday, March 04, 2022

The Genius Under the Table

Yelchin, Eugene. The Genius Under the Table
October 5th 2021 by Candlewick Press
Public library copy

Young Yevgeny lives in Leningrad in the early 1970s, and shares one room in an apartment with his older brother, parents, and grandmother. His grandfather has been cut out of all of the family picturesbecause of circumstances the father, a staunch Communist, will not discuss. Even though his father maintains the party line, he also loves poetry, and in the privacy of their room, away from the prying ears of the apartment spy, Blinov. His mother, who works at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, which is connected to the Kirov ballet, is less discreet, sometimes complaining about the government while scrubbing the floor of the communal apartment. She is obsessed with the star of the ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and wants Yevgeny to excel at something so he can have more privileges in his life. She even gets him admitted to her ballet school, but he is less than promising. His real talents lie in drawing, but because paper is scarce, he draws mostly on the underside of the large family dining table. Because the room is so small, he has a cot under the table (his brother sleeps on three chairs, to improve his balance for skating!) where he sleeps, and takes his father's pencil so he can draw on the underside. His mother is distraught when Baryshnikov defects, even though this was somewhat suspected, but Yevgeny's father discovers his drawings and brings him to the attention of a teacher. Sadly, after standing in line in freezing weather to purchase a book of poetry, his father gets pneumonia and dies. 
Strengths: This is a short, bitterly humorous book that offers a fascinating look at life in Communist Russia. Details about banned records, the obsession with denim jeans, spies living in one's apartment, and the desperate attempt of parents to improve the lives of their children are all made painfully clear, even to young readers. The mother's obsession with ballet as a way to succeed was interesting, considering the manner in which Baryshnikov managed to do this. The drawings are quirky, but capture the times well. Definitely a snapshot of time and place that also captures major social history, like Uhlberg's The Sounds of Silence or Hudson's Defiant
Weaknesses: The author was born in 1956, and the book makes it seem like he was about 10 when Baryshnikov defected, which isn't quite right. There was never a date stated, so I was a bit confused. Since this is shelved in the memoir section of my public library, I would have expected specific dates to be mentioned in the text. Younger readers won't mind, but I found it confusing.
What I really think: I liked this better than Arkady's Goal or Breaking Stalin's Nose. The details about living in the USSR are so good that I might purchase this . It has certainly gotten a lot of love from teachers and librarians. The short length works to its advantage, and I might be able to sell it as a Russian Wimpy Kid.
 Ms. Yingling

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