Memoir of life at Roosevelt’s Warm Springs polio center, where the author stayed between the ages of 11 and 13.
Novelist Shreve (A Student of Living Things, 2006, etc.) draws on an unpublished novel, written when she was 18, to refresh her memory of life at that time. Her initial stay was from August to December 1950, with a second and longer stay from June 1951 to April 1952. During both stays, surgery is performed on her right leg and she undergoes months of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation for her is not simply a physical act; she believes that at Warm Springs she will transform herself from a bad girl who had caused her family trouble into a virtual angel of God. Less severely handicapped than most of the other children—her roommate is in a body cast—the lonely young Shreve is embarrassed by her relative wholeness and feels very much the outsider. She tries to fill her days with catechism lessons from a friendly priest, reading books and becoming a sort of caretaker, visiting the babies’ ward every day, delivering mail and carrying bedpans. She writes falsely cheery letters to her mother, to which her mother offers upbeat replies, neither one acknowledging true feelings and the reality of the situation. Her special friend is a half-paralyzed boy, Joey, who dreams of becoming an athlete and whom Shreve recklessly leads into a terrible accident, the story of which begins and ends this memoir. Having tried to become the epitome of goodness, she commits a reckless act that confirms her badness and swiftly brings about her departure, if not expulsion, from Warm Springs.
More than a revealing picture of FDR’s polio treatment center in the years just before the arrival of vaccines that ended a frightening, crippling disease, this is a moving portrait of a girl on the cusp of adolescence dealing with pain, guilt and loneliness.