A survivor of a polio outbreak in California transports readers back to a time before the Salk vaccine rid the country of the scourge.
Debut author Viale was just 6 weeks old when she contracted polio in 1948 in Eureka, unusually young even for a disease that was often called infantile paralysis. Doctors doubted she would survive, much less regain any use of her arms and legs. Now, decades later, she shares the story of the first 18 years of her life, a period during which Viale used the muscular strength she developed, bolstered by indefatigable “gumption,” to propel her way to independence. She began by using her strong right leg to scoot herself across the floor on her back; when she wanted to get on the couch, she pulled down the seat cushion with her teeth to enable the climb. As a youngster, she suffered long separations from her family while she underwent a variety of experimental treatments and surgeries at the Shriners’ Hospital for Crippled Children in San Francisco. For months at a time she could see her parents only through a window. Feelings of isolation were compounded by her mother, who was physically undemonstrative and emotionally fragile. Viale’s memoir has the ingredients for a very depressing read. It is not. There is plenty of appropriate anger—toward her mother, the Shriners, and her disability—but shining through is the author’s unflagging determination to push her polio-afflicted body to the max. In her haunting and buoyant account, she describes trying to eat with a special spoon that her mother placed within her three usable fingers: “I hit my eye with the first bite, but my aim improved on the next try.” Individual vignettes sometimes skip around chronologically, creating a confusing timeline. But the stories are nonetheless delightfully evocative, as when she and her friends dug a trench in the yard to create a “fallout shelter” during the ubiquitous atomic bomb warnings in the 1950s.
A surprisingly uplifting and moving depiction of courage in the face of a physically challenging childhood.