The Chilling Days Of an Epidemic

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, June 29, 2007


Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven

By Susan Richards Shreve

Houghton Mifflin. 215 pp. $24

About halfway through this extremely intense memoir, I began getting visions of Stephen King. I hope he never lays eyes on this, because if he did, he'd stagger into a corner, pull out a large linen handkerchief and weep into it: "All my raving lunatics and hideous epidemics and fiery-eyed dogs -- all my thousands of pages of horror -- and I've been outdone in 200 pages by a refined, literary lady-novelist!"

It's true, Susan Richards Shreve knocks King out of the ballpark. She well knows the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. She also knows the corollary maxim: The harder your life, the better your material.

When she was 1 1/2 , Shreve had poliomyelitis. When she was 4, she came down with rheumatic fever and spent months in bed. A year or so later, around the time her little brother was born, she had spinal meningitis and lay for a while in a coma.

(One thinks of the young parents: Shreve's father, who felt that his career in radio had been truncated by his daughter's illnesses, and her astonishingly beautiful young mother, who -- orphaned at an early age -- stood by Susan through thick and thin; patient, innovative, loyal.)

Shreve had one paralyzed leg, one useless foot. In 1950, when she was 11, she was sent to Warm Springs, Ga., to undergo a series of operations (bone fusions and muscle transplants) that, in theory, could allow her to walk like a "normal" person again.

The historical context is handled beautifully here. Some of us already know the story and some of us, by now, may be a little hazy on it. Up until the middle of the 20th century, polio was one of the great scourges of human life. In American terms, it played out like this: If you were a kid and running a fever, your mother would bang your head down toward your chest. If your neck could stretch enough to do it, there was general relief because you didn't have polio, you wouldn't be paralyzed. In my own youth, my best friend's aunt lay paralyzed in the dining room; another friend's mother breathed in an iron lung. No one was safe from it.

Franklin Roosevelt, privileged beyond words, succumbed to it during the beginning of his political career. It was he who escaped to Warm Springs, to take the waters and work strenuously toward his own cure, and, lacking other things to do, converted the genteel, elegant, run-down spa into a new kind of hospital, offering a new kind of healing. Afflicted people could come to this place, the story was -- and the story was almost true -- have fun, lift their spirits and, in the process, have their bodies healed as well.

How effective the physical healing was remains hazy in Shreve's telling. In an afterword, she mentions a Dr. Irwin, "who was responsible for changing the lives of so many patients." She doesn't say "improved" or "saved," only "changed." In what might have been some kind of cruel irony, Irwin died, crippled by injuries in his later years, unable to escape from a house fire.

Because most polio victims were children, the characters we see through Shreve's lens of memory are young people brought to live at Warm Springs for months, even years on end, while doctors fiddled around, fusing those bones, transplanting those active muscles to where paralyzed ones had been. The children, brave beyond words, endured acute physical pain and any number of fears. If there were a fire in their building, they wondered, who could get them all out?

The grounds of Warm Springs are spacious, the rooms airy, the financing taken care of first by Roosevelt's personal fortune and then by the March of Dimes, a charity uniquely suited to the Great Depression and the war years, since even a poor family could obtain a little card, fill its slots with dimes -- sometimes a coin at a time -- mail it off, and feel that some larger good would be done. Some good was certainly done. Those funds, in the end, helped researchers find a vaccine.

Meanwhile, young Susan is checked into Warm Springs. On the same day, a very cute boy, Joey Buckley, is checked in as well. He's paralyzed from the waist down but is convinced that in a couple of years he'll be up and playing football again. He goes off to the boys' ward; she's put into a semi-private room with a roommate whose full body cast takes the shape of a backward U, "her legs curved up toward her back . . . separated by a pole." Soon enough Susan learns that besides the adults (who live in another, completely unexplored world), infants also live in Warm Springs. They are sent to a babies' ward -- for what? To live out their precarious little lives until they die, perhaps.

There's no danger of giving away the "plot" of this memoir. The time frame is only two years (with occasional flashbacks and general history), but much is revealed in the first 12 pages, in a hideous event that has its roots in the reckless American love of speed and risk, and plays out as an echo of Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome." It's ghastly and reminds us that death is with us at every moment; that sin and guilt and fault and stupidity dog all of us every day. That scene alone would send Stephen King grasping for his handkerchief.

Shreve gives us a world of little children undergoing horrifying tortures. She relives a moment when polio invades Warm Springs itself, active polio, and she and her roommate shut the door to their room and refuse to eat, because they're terrified of dying. Death and pain are everywhere around them. When men with a toolbox come in to tighten the screws on the roommate's cast, it's -- well, I can't describe it. And when these little kids begin to develop sexual drives (threatened as they are by death, physical agony, homesickness, abandonment, their bodies having become literally and figuratively unintelligible to them), I shrink from describing that, too. The depth of human suffering here, and the bravery, are unspeakable, indecipherable.

Susan Shreve has put it into extraordinary words. Read it and weep, Mr. King.

Sunday in Book World

· Examining the idea of America.

· Post-9/11 tales from Rick Moody.

· The chess machine that fooled Europe.

· America's greatest songwriters.

· Our monthly Kids Stuff feature.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company