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Fleen Book Corner: Spinning

[Editor’s note: The inestimable Gina Gagliano at :01 Books sent a review copy of Tillie Walden’s Spinning that I received just after San Deigo Comic Con, and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s due for release in about a month’s time (12 September, to be precise), and I normally wait until the ten-days-to-two-weeks prior to run a review of a forthcoming book.

But heck, Kirkus and Junior Library Guild and Publishers Weekly have had theirs out for weeks now¹, about the same time Walden was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly. So early or not, I’m diving in. Needless to say, you may find spoilers ahead.]

I find myself with thoughts that so completely mirror an earlier book that I feel compelled to quote some of what I wrote three years back:

[I]t’s a story that hurts in a real, tangible, maybe-necessary-maybe-not way. I suspect that if I’d been an almost-teen girl at any point in my life, it would ache and resonate even more. Getting to the truths below the surface of the One Summer in question is like having to peel away a bandage and finally let the healing of the wound below finish up.

That was in reference to This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki; I’m years further from being anything resembling an almost-teen girl, but Spinning is helping me understand what that point in life (and the half-dozen years since) are like. Which is not to say that it’s the same story, not at all.

Spinning is autobiographical, it’s telling a story that bumps up to just a few years ago in Walden’s life (the book functionally ends when she’s 16 or so; she’s just recently turned 21), and it works in a hazy, dreamlike, spare fashion (some pages entirely lack panel borders, with huge swaths of white space and widely-separated blocks of text and images making the moment hang




forever) to act less as memoir², and more to serve as an emtion-delivery mechanism. 400 pages of Walden’s personal history digested, I can’t tell you more than the broadest outline of when things happened to her.

Although presented linearly, I’m left with an impression of Walden’s life that’s more akin to the skating diagrams shown during the first instance of her testing to determine her competition level — swoops and swirls, crossing her own path, which suddenly disappears and reappears further along after a jump.

The curlicue patterns in the ice may as well be her life’s path: intense shyness and dissatisfaction followed by a cross-country move; solitary nature exacerbated by having to adjust to a new home, new school, new teammates and rivals, and even a new vocabulary of skating³. All of which were eclipsed by the effort of dealing with the fact that she’s gay and wondering if she’ll ever be allowed to love somebody openly.

That lack of straight-line storytelling leads to a potentially unreliable narration — there’s just enough sketches of a schoolgirl bully to wonder what really happened (and when), for instance — which is not a drawback. Walden indicates in her afterword that she intentionally did not seek out any reference material, photos, or recollections of others in making the book, preferring to get to an essential truth over a literal one. This is maybe the greatest storytelling strength in Spinning.

I may not have a clear understanding of what point in Walden’s life the Skate Moms at the rink — Walden’s own mother is shown as variously distant, disinterested in her skating career, and complaining of its costs — decided to be total bitches to her about paying for rink time, but I am acutely aware of the depth and breadth of how that incident — and the others in her life — made her feel.

Some of those feelings were imposed on her, some of those feelings propelled her or paralyzed her, some of those feelings that she may never have shared before this book. The emotional charge is such that, more than once, I was left gasping after a too-long period of not breathing, not daring to disturb a years-and-miles distant Walden in a moment of crisis.

I used the word dreamlike earlier, and the more I think on it, the more I think it’s the most precise word to use. Spinning4 leaves you in that same state as you’re in when waking from a dream and everything is bright and perfectly detailed in that moment before it fades, leaving impressions. It’s a story where you don’t start at the beginning and move to the end; you start at an arbitrary point and then you get dragged in and filled in on the bits you need when necessary. I won’t tell you everything, the story whispers, just true things.

Spinning is transformative. It the story of one person, with just enough true things to make its points, some of them related to skating but most of them not. It requires you to open yourself up to the truth of being Tillie Walden, at the expense of not being solely you, just a little. Take the leap, find yourself in other shoes (err, skates), and you’ll be different for having invited in somebody else’s truth for a short while.

Spam of the day:

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What sets this scam for fake Medicare coverage for senior citizens apart from others of its ilk is the photo embedded. A guy that’s meant to look like a go-getter of a senior, with a don’t screw with me, medical-industrial complex look on his face instead looks like a bald, poorly dressed, constipated Larry Bud Melman.

¹ As of this writing, there are 33 reviews on Goodreads.

² That is, a recounting of these are the things that happened at these points in my life.

³ New Jersey, where Walden lived until the end of fifth grade, and Texas, where she moved, belonged to different competitive organizations with different standards and criteria.

4 As well as her critically-lauded webcomic, On A Sunbeam.

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