Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDRs Polio Haven, By Susan Richards Shreve, Houghton Mifflin, 215 pp., $24
Our cultural fascination with illness derives in part from the impact that disease has on the social order -- the fears of contagion, the rush for a cure or a vaccine, the almost predictable ostracism that befalls victims (a rough moral insurance that it could never happen to us). These tenets have held in the modern world from smallpox to AIDS, though the polio epidemics of the mid-20th century may have occupied a unique place in the collective consciousness. The worst casualties of polio are often children, whose immune systems are not yet strong enough to fight back, and the virus tends to maim rather than kill. So we were left with the photographs: of kids on crutches or in iron lungs, of March of Dimes poster children with broken bodies and strong hearts. The visual metaphors were anguished but ongoing: If polio let you live, it left a permanent reminder of what it had taken.
Novelist Susan Richards Shreve contracted the disease as an infant in 1941; by the time she was 3, she was able to walk with braces on both legs -- and with the help of a mother who is one of the competing female heroines of "Warm Springs."
"We were odd," writes Shreve about the Richards family more than halfway through this affecting memoir, though by now the reader has long since figured that out. Her father was a radio broadcaster in Washington, D.C., who took in stray dogs and drunken journalists. Her mother, who dressed out of French Vogue and counseled her daughter to stand like a dancer, retired to her bedroom for a year when Shreve was 8; the family installed a Dutch door so that Mrs. Richards could hear conversations from the rest of the house. Yet she had tirelessly worked with her daughter's frail body until the girl was able to hobble forth into the world, imbuing her with a nobility of spirit that is as striking as anything in "Warm Springs."
" 'Speak first,' my mother had always told me," writes Shreve, "knowing that a bony child on crutches with the dark demeanor of a war survivor might not be well received. 'Say "I'm Susan Richards" and smile and reach out your hand.' " It was advice that the finest etiquette schools might have envied, and probably as essential as any treatment Shreve endured.
"Warm Springs" refers to the rehabilitation hospital in Warm Springs, Ga., where Shreve spent two years of her life: undergoing muscle transplants and physical therapy, behaving like a rascal or a saint, daydreaming from within her confines to hone the skills of the writer she would become. Felled by polio in 1921 , Franklin Roosevelt had gone to the inn at Warm Springs for the mineral waters; he had found a milieu of such therapeutic hope that he bought the place, transforming it into a model of public health. With its boarding-school-like setting, Warm Springs sought to rebuild not just the atrophied muscles but the very psyches of its "polios," as the disease's victims were called. In other words, speak first.
Shreve has consciously set out to write her story as a shadow of the greater one: of the impact of polio on an America poised between the Allied victory and the civil rights movement, of a society with enough sophistication to found Warm Springs but still in the dark ages about health and morality. (When Shreve contracted rheumatic fever in the 1940s, "the treatment was ten Hail Marys, kale sandwiches on brown bread, and cod liver oil." ) But the real drama of "Warm Springs" lies within its more personal story, of a girl who spent her nights trying to outlast fear and her days bluffing her way through the obstacle course polio had wrought. Away from her family for months at a time, she became both resident clown and pious acolyte at Warm Springs, tending to bedpans and the infants on the ward, trying her damnedest to convert to Catholicism (she failed). She challenged a boy to a wheelchair race, a disastrous affair that forms the narrative crucible of her memoir; there is also a hilarious episode involving what used to be called a sanitary belt. She roused the other girls on the wing into laughter and games beyond the ordinary anguish that defined the place. About the post-surgery screams of one roommate, she writes, "But we were used to that in one another and could sleep through noises of pain and sadness, or talk through them, about movies and boyfriends and sex and God, back and forth across the beds. Never pain and sadness."
Wrenching but entirely lacking in self-pity, "Warm Springs" is both funny and revelatory, its narrator emerging as a thoroughly endearing girl poised on adolescence who had grown up long before. As a primary resource (I had polio as an infant, a case milder than Shreve's), I can testify that her description of the commonly called "polio personality" is spot on: stubborn to a fault, determined against all odds, capable of the "splendid deception" that FDR mastered to deny the effects of the disease. A great deal of this memoir is about waiting: the empty hours of not walking, the pause in time while you waited for the surgery or braces to work or for real life to begin. And so the child filled the hours with stories greater than her own -- fantasies that involved other characters and more far-flung dramas. "I was always somewhere else and the narrative took over," writes Shreve. "I had the illusion of living a life in full." Most of us would argue that it was no illusion at all.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.