Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction

Back in January I had the idea to catch up as much as I can on previous Wellcome Book Prize long- and shortlists while the Prize is on hiatus. I decided to start with a pair of novels about polio from my public library system: The Golden Age by Joan London and Nemesis by Philip Roth. The latter, especially, has taken on new significance due to its evocation of a time of panic over a public health crisis (see this article, but beware spoilers). On a fellow book reviewer’s recommendation, I also took Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks off the shelf and read it at the same time as the Roth.

 

The Golden Age by Joan London (2014)

[First published in the UK in 2016; on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 longlist]

The Golden Age was a real children’s polio hospital in Western Australia, but London has peopled it with her own fictional cast. In 1953–4, Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs, polio patients aged 12 going on 13, fall in love in the most improbable of circumstances: “The backs of their hands brushed as they walked side by side on their crutches. Their bloodstreams recharged by exercise and fresh air, they experienced a fiery burst of pleasure.”

Frank is much the more vibrant character thanks to his family’s wartime past in Hungary and his budding vocation as a poet, which was spurred on by his friendship with Sullivan, a fellow inmate at his previous rehabilitation center. The narrative spends time with the nurses, parents and other patients but keeps coming back to Frank and Elsa. However, Chapter 7, with Frank and his mother Ida still back in Budapest, was my favorite.

I was reminded of Tracy Farr’s work (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt), especially the look back from decades later. This has a strong premise and some great lines, but for me there was something slightly lacking in the execution.

Favorite lines:

There was beauty everywhere, strange beauty, even—especially?—in a children’s polio hospital.

Polio is like love, Frank says … Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.

My rating:

 

Nemesis by Philip Roth (2010)

[On the Wellcome Book Prize 2011 shortlist]

In the summer of 1944 Newark, New Jersey is hit hard by polio. As a local playground director, 23-year-old Bucky Cantor is distressed when several of his charges become ill; a couple of them even die within a matter of days.

At first Bucky, whose poor eyesight kept him out of the War, sees his job as his own field of duty, but gradually fear and helplessness drive him away. He escapes to the Pocono Mountains to join his fiancée, Marcia, as a summer camp counselor, but soon realizes the futility of trying to outrun a virus. Unable to accept the randomness of bad luck, he blames God – and himself – for the epidemic’s spread.

Despite our better general understanding of epidemiology today, there were still many passages in this novel that rang true for me as they picture life proceeding as normal until paranoia starts to take hold:

Despite polio’s striking in the neighborhood, the store-lined main street was full of people out doing their Saturday grocery shopping…

(Bucky) Look, you mustn’t be eaten up with worry … What’s important is not to infect the children with the germ of fear. We’ll come through this, believe me. We’ll all do our bit and stay calm and do everything we can to protect the children, and we’ll all come through this together.

The important thing, he said, was always to wash your hands after you handled paper money or coins. What about the mail, someone else said … What are you going to do, somebody retorted, suspend delivering the mail? The whole city would come to a halt. Six or seven weeks ago they would have been talking about the war news.

Roth really captures the atmosphere of alarm and confusion, but doesn’t always convey historical and medical information naturally, sometimes resorting to paragraphs of context and representative conversations like in the last quote above. I also wasn’t sure about the use of a minor character (revealed on page 108 to be one of Bucky’s playground kids and a polio patient) as the narrator. This seemed to me to make Bucky more of a symbolic hero than a genuine character. Still, this was a timely and riveting read.

My rating:

A period warning about polio reprinted at the back of Paul Auster’s Report from the Interior.

 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)

In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision was made to quarantine it. A benevolent landowner arranged for regular deliveries of food and other supplies to just outside the parish boundaries. The villagers made an oath that no one would leave until the pestilence was eradicated. One year later, two-thirds of its residents were dead. Brooks imagines that the “plague seeds” came to the village in a bolt of cloth that was delivered from London to the tailor George Viccars, who lodged with widow Anna Frith. Viccars is the first victim and the disease quickly spreads outward from Anna’s home.

Anna barely has time to grieve her own losses before she’s called into service: along with the minister’s wife, Elinor Mompellion, she steps in as a midwife, herbal healer and even a miner. The village succumbs to several sobering trajectories. Suspicion of women’s traditional wisdom leads some to take vigilante action against presumed witches. Unscrupulous characters like Anna’s father, who sets up as a gravedigger, try to make a profit out of others’ suffering. Frustration with the minister’s apparent ineffectuality attracts others to forms of religious extremism. Like Bucky, people cannot help but see the hand of God here.

Perhaps what I was most missing in the London and Roth novels (and in Hamnet, which bears such striking thematic similarities to Year of Wonders) was intimate first-person narration, which is just what you get here from Anna. The voice and the historical recreation are flawless, and again there were so many passages that felt apt:

Stay here, in the place that you know, and in the place where you are known. … Stay here, and here we will be for one another.

the current times did seem to ask us all for every kind of sacrifice

(once they start meeting for church in a meadow) We placed ourselves so that some three yards separated each family group, believing this to be sufficient distance to avoid the passing of infection.

Yet it is a good day, for the simple fact that no one died upon it. We are brought to a sorry state, that we measure what is good by such a shortened yardstick.

I’ve docked a half-star only because of a far-fetched ending that reminded me of that to The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Apart from that, this is just what I want from my historical fiction.

My rating:

 

Are you doing any reading about epidemics?

28 responses

  1. There was a very good BBC TV play about Eyam in the 1970s called The Roses of Eyam – possibly on YouTube somewhere?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds interesting. I’d like to see that. I also hope one day I’ll be passing through Derbyshire and can follow the “Plague Village” sign.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Year of Wonders so long ago that I can’t remember anything about it, except that I thought that the ending was so ridiculous that it threw the credibility of the whole novel into question (and I’d been quite enjoying it up to that point)! I will probably have to re-read it just to remember why it I thought it was so silly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think what you are objecting to is literally the last five pages. I agree that what Anna does next seems awfully far-fetched. Brooks could have just ended it before the epilogue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha, maybe we can just pretend it didn’t happen then 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like Geraldine Brooks although haven’t read this one. Not sure if I can cope with plague stories right at the moment… but will save for later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her novel March was one of my most memorable reads a couple of years ago. Her historical fiction has been hit or miss for me (I didn’t enjoy The Secret Chord), but when it’s good it’s really good! I appreciate that some people will be shying away from pandemic reading at the moment. I think it has been cathartic for me to find similarities in these historical outbreaks. But your reading strategy may be completely different! I tried to come up with something for everyone in this post: https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/pandemic-reading-strategies-recommendations-serious-or-tongue-in-cheek/.

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  4. While I haven’t been plague-reading, I have been watching more dystopian stories (just dabbling in various series that I’ve eschewed until recently, in favour of other kinds of stories), so I understand the impulse. I’ve long meant to read Joan London and I believe I still have one of hers on my own shelves – I’ll check (it’s not this one for sure). I know exactly what you mean about that kind of ending (although I haven’t read this book, I’ve read the one you’ve compared it to) and I actually think I would love the idea of simply GIVING characters a certain kind of ending, based on fancy rather than reality, IF there was even the slightest inkling of that tendency in the rest of the story–it’s the sense of it being ill-fitting, too sharply contrasting, that troubles me, rather than the actual circumstances. Is that what troubles you too?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard of Joan London apart from this book and its appearance on the WBP longlist.

      Without giving away anything specific about the Brooks, both endings feel almost like the author enacting wish fulfillment for the character rather than depicting something that would realistically happen in that historical time and place.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve not read any of these, although I’ve read different books by London and Roth and have Nemesis and that Geraldine Brooks on my shelves I think. Another quarantine town book on my shelves is The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen – but I’ve not read it yet. Set against the 1918 flu epidemic in the USA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you’ve read a fair bit around polio, so I’m sure you’d find Nemesis interesting.

      I’m very keen on the Mullen; I discovered it through that recent Publishers Weekly list of pandemic novels.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember enjoying both the London and the Brooks. If you want another plague title I’d recommend Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a vague memory of there being a copy of that one on shelf in the free bookshop where I volunteer. Once we reopen I’ll see if it’s still around!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I know Eyam quite well and can’t help wondering if the people who live there now feel slightly differently about their village’s history given their current situation. If you do ever get there I can recommend the scones in the local tearoom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many more people have now had an experience of being in quarantine!

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  8. Straight after I read Hamnet, I read Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann which also features Shakespeare, Hamnet and the plague!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my gosh, how funny! I have loved a couple of Kehlmann’s novels, so I’m keen to read that one.

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      1. I really, really enjoyed it.

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  9. There is no way I can read about plagues/pandemics just now. For once, I’ve only skim-read your post. Sorry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries. I found it comforting to see that these things are perennial, but I know others will have a different response.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I read Year of Wonders years ago and loved it. It led me to read the rest of her books, all but her latest.

    It’s amazing how apt those quotes are to what’s going on right now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This and March were amazing books. I’m glad I persisted with Brooks, because the first book of hers I read, The Secret Chord, I did not enjoy very much.

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      1. That’s the one I haven’t read! You’ve read my two favourites. The People of the Book is good, too.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I have a copy of that one. I’m looking forward to it. I saw her nonfiction book in an Edinburgh charity shop the other year and didn’t buy it; silly me!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’ll probably come across it again sometime!

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      2. I hope so. Otherwise I’ll add it to a wish list for birthdays and Christmas.

        Like

      3. (To be specific, it was the pen pal one; I didn’t realize she had another nonfiction book about Islamic women.)

        Like

  11. […] favorite blog posts of the year: Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day; Polio and the Plague: Epidemics in Fiction; Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival); Three […]

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