The Winds of October, a story of young people bringing about the end of a brutal class system during the Russian Revolution, is welcomed by Richard Allday
Alan Gibbons, The Winds of October (Circaidy Gregory Press 2017), iv, 230pp.
In the introduction this book, the author (Alan Gibbons) is described as a professional writer for 26 years ‘mainly in the children’s and Young Adult field’, and Winds of October as ‘Alan’s first adult novel’.
I do hope that in subsequent editions, Alan insists on changes to these descriptions. Some of the reasons for this hope are clarified in the novel, and some of them derive from a social critique that Alan himself has endorsed for many decades.
The first (and minor) cavil is with the concept of ‘children’s books’ – books are books are books. Some are intended (and crafted) to be read by adults or young people to children who have not yet mastered reading for themselves; some are crafted to jointly engage those taking their first steps as independent readers with mentors more adept; and some are intended to stimulate independent readers. If they do not succeed in engaging all parties in this process, they fall by the wayside. To lump E. Nesbitt (Five children and It), the Grimm brothers, J. K. Rowling, A. Sewell (Black Beauty), Louisa Alcott (Little Women), Tolkien, and Philip Pullman (among many others) as ‘writers of children’s books’ reveals more the pomposity and arrogance of the critic than the moral and social questions raised by the authors. All of these demand more than passive consumption by their audiences, and hence their enduring popularity. The Gruffalo is more than a twee stroll with talking animals, it introduces (very) young readers to … oh, read it yourself and make your own mind up!
The second cavil is central to Winds of October: it is the fatuous assumption of liberals (in the worst sense) that ‘they know best’, which this novel seeks to puncture throughout. The description is of Alan writing ‘mainly in the children’s and Young Adults field’ (why the capital letters?), but that this is his “first adult novel”. Hhnh? So ‘Young Adults’ are not really adults, but we’ll fob them off by pretending we think they are equal to us; “I’m not prejudiced, but …”; “some of my best friends are …”. It brings to mind Dr. Johnson’s dismissal of women preachers.
Which brings me to Winds of October specifically: yes, Alan aims and arms his characters at and with youth; but then, revolution is overwhelmingly the preserve of youth. Yes, many of the characters are archetypes; but then, from Homer to Dickens to Pullman, storytellers have employed archetypes to illustrate ‘the human condition’. The book opens with orphaned Raisa, victim of trafficking, being rented out to a perverted member of the nobility. The way she deals with her predator will bring a smile to any reader’s face, and the thought that if more women adopted her approach, sexual harassment would soon be virtually non-existent.
From this moment on, Raisa is launched on a life-changing course of events, in the maelstrom that was the Russian revolution of 1917. Carried along by events beyond her control, and initially beyond her understanding, she faces challenges to her previously accepted views on morality, sexuality, social order, sexism and all the time-hallowed preconceptions that allowed a brutal system of class privilege to be regarded as ‘the natural order’.
Along with her discovery that by her own actions she can change the world she lives in, come new friends and acquaintances. There is Pavel, the hard-bitten squaddie, conscripted to fight for a system he holds in contempt, but seizing on the vision of a better world offered by the Bolsheviks. Kolya, the idealistic student revolutionary who the reader uneasily comes to realize may be more in love with the abstract ‘revolution’ than the real people who are essential to bring it about. His lover Svetlana, the strike leader who, several years older than Kolya, introduces him to the physical pleasures of love but knows that he will move on eventually. Above all, there is Svetlana’s niece Elena, who forges a bond with Raisa that defies convention and sustains each of them. These, together with a host of others, accompany us through the twists and turns of the anti-war movement, the challenge to the existing order, coups and counter-coups, until the heady days of October, and the triumphant storming of the Winter Palace.
The author has done a remarkable job of introducing us to a cast of characters, mainly young, confronted with stark choices between accepting the continuation of a brutal, repressive and autocratic world, dependent on war and prejudice to maintain itself, and the leap into the unknown, overturning the familiar in the hope of creating something better. How they respond, the questions they have to face, and the choices they make, reveal a link with the choices that face (or will face) us. I hope readers of Counterfire of a certain age buy this for their younger friends and family members, but they will do well to buy a copy for themselves also. There are lessons in it for all of us.
I am no longer a ‘Young Adult’ (sometimes I wonder if I am an adult at all) but I enjoyed this first taste of what promises to be an entertaining and educational trilogy.
John Mullen also writes:
Alan Gibbons has published over sixty books, usually novels for young people, and often engaging with contemporary political questions. Hate dealt with hate crime; The Trap dealt with terrorism; An Act of Love tells the story of two childhood friends who both end up fighting in Afghanistan, but not on the same side. Caught in the Crossfire tells a story of intercommunal violence. Gibbons does scores of school visits every year, runs campaigns to save libraries, and carries out other vital activities in our neoliberal world. He is an anti-capitalist activist and can be found knocking on doors for Corbyn or at innumerable demos, summer schools or meetings for the cause.
This of course goes some way towards explaining his latest project, a trilogy of short novels set during the Russian Revolution, of which the first is just out, under the title Winds of October.
It is a fast-paced read, following the fortunes of five young participants in the Revolution. The novel takes us first through the insurrection of February 1917, when the tsar is overthrown but the new government refuses to stop the war, which has already killed over a million young Russian men. We then jump to the events of April, when Lenin returns to Petrograd and insists that only a government based on workers’ and soldiers’ councils will stop the war and concentrate on feeding the hungry masses. The last section is set in October, as the provisional government collapses practically without defenders, and the workers’ councils take power under Bolshevik leadership.
A tapestry of telling detail brings the revolutionary year to life: the workers who destroy the leather armchairs when they take the Winter Palace, because they need the leather to make shoes, or the brave revolutionaries who persuade soldiers at the barricades not to shoot but to join the revolt. We see the different stages of the revolution and how everyone’s certainties fall apart. In particular, the female characters are no longer prepared to put up with being treated as sex kittens, and frequently tell male comrades where to get off. Quite complex questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics are well-portrayed and explained in dialogues between the insurgents.
This is Gibbons’ first novel not specifically aimed at young people. It maintains however several of the codes of young people’s literature: it is short, and there is rather a lot of falling-in-love at first sight. It is not classified as ‘for young people’ because of the (unlikely) amount of always-energetic sex in the story.
It is notoriously difficult (and perhaps impossible) for historical novels or films to reproduce the psychology of a hundred years ago. But this is not really the objective of the book. It is more to give a believable account of how people’s lives change, and of the sort of decisions they suddenly had to take as they became subjects of history. It has a couple of anachronisms, and some characters seem to be wholly unaffected by their upbringing, but it is a success in its own terms, and is a place you can learn about the greatest revolution ever while enjoying an exciting tale.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.