Spinning, the graphic memoir by Tillie Walden is a stunning book and a masterful work of storytelling. With a clarity of vision and evenhandedness, especially impressive for someone in her early twenties, Walden accomplishes what she says she set out to do in her author's note where she says that, "This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling." To me, the overall feeling of Spinning is one of isolation, even alienation. And, while I never pursued a childhood talent with the commitment and perseverance that Walden did, the feelings of her childhood experiences resonated with me.
The disruption and challenges of a cross country move, a relentless bully, a near death experience and coming out to her friends and family occur over the course of Tillie Walden's childhood where competitive skating is the one constant. Spinning isn't a stereotypical story of overcoming a difficult childhood through hard work and dedication to a goal, instead, it is the story of how Walden began to shape her own identity and sense of self by rejecting one she had passively accepted.
Tillie Walden started skating around the time she was five years old, which is also when she first knew she was gay. Spinning follows her from age eleven to seventeen, through some horrible and hopeful events. Figure skating is a sport I have never been interested, but Spinning gave me a deeper understanding for the artistry and skill required, Walden starting each chapter with a different move and the techniques required. Walden's reflection that, "more than just ability goes into being an ice skater. Your life outside the rink shapes how you skate," gave me insight into how she skated over the course of her childhood and the graphic novel. Competitive skating, or any competitive childhood sport, requires commitment on the part of parent and child. What was striking to me about Spinning was the lack of involvement on the part of Walden's parents and how much of her time as a competitive skater she had to manage herself, as well as her ability as a writer to restrain from putting what would be understandable anger and blame onto the page. Walden does a remarkable job of keeping the character of Tillie Walden uninformed and unaware in the way that children are, and making mistakes because of this, letting her gift for storytelling shape the reader's understanding and perception with well placed memories and flashbacks. In Spinning, Tillie shares a memory of her first skating coach with teammate Lindsay while away at a competition, reflecting inwardly that learning to ice skate never meant that much to her, she just went to lessons because, Walden writes, "as a little kid, I was desperate for any affection or attention." She follows this with a powerful image of young Tillie, collapsed in the lap of her coach. Spinning is two toned, a range of muted purples, with the occasional bursts of golden yellow that add emotional impact to scenes like this.
I started Spinning, as all readers will, knowing that Walden quite competitive skating and became a graphic novelist. The experience of watching Walden's childhood unfold in Spinning, wondering how and when she would decide to break with this sport that, increasingly had less and less to do with the person she was becoming, is powerful. And, though she ends Spinning reflecting, sadly, on how she failed to communicate her decision with Lindsay, her closest skating friend and teammate, someone she realized she had not been a good friend to, a coda depicting a memory that is, "sticky and sweet and still sends chills through me," not a sad memory, like most, of "exhaustion and nerves," gives Spinning the sense of closure and hopefulness that readers are rooting for.
Source: Review Copy