Recommended for ages 10-14
Kathryn Lasky's newest novel is set in Indiana during a polio epidemic in the summer of 1952. The story is narrated by 11-year-old Georgie, who has just moved cross-town to a new neighborhood, where she knows no one. Georgie is bored out of her mind, since she's not allowed to swim in public pools, go to camp or to the movies because of the all-pervasive fear of contracting polio. Georgie has a strange obsession with the disease, tracking the number of new cases daily in the newspaper and memorizing lists of polio symptoms, just in case.
It's a strange quirk of fate that right next door to Georgie and her family lives Phyllis, a beautiful, flirtatious teen-aged girl who seems right out of the Archie comics Georgie loves to read--except that she's a polio victim who is trapped in an iron lung, with a useless body that is withering away. Completing the triangle of main characters is Georgie's brother, Emmett, a socially awkward high school basketball player who's an expert amateur astronomer.
As Georgie and her brother get to know Phyllis, Emmett falls in love with her, spending hours with Phyllis looking through his telescopes at the stars. Phyllis makes Georgie feel very grown up by engaging in "girl talk" with her and even gives her some real lipstick. Georgie, whose hobby is building miniature worlds, makes for Phyllis an elaborately detailed miniature diorama featuring the myth of Orion. But Georgie becomes increasingly uneasy with Phyllis; she has an uncomfortable feeling that there is more to this beautiful yet pathetic neighbor than meets the eye. Georgie even starts to have nightmares that she and her brother are ensnared in some kind of evil web, spinning out of control, and begins to grow fearful of Phyllis. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that the resolution of this tense situation brought tears to my eyes.
I highly recommend this novel for young people (boys or girls) ten and up. In telling the story of Phyllis, Georgie, and Emmett, Lasky touches on many deeper themes--what does it really mean to live? Why do bad things happen to good people? The book is also likely to spark conversation about polio and other highly contagious diseases--those that are still a threat, and those that have been eradicated. Many of the young people reading this book may have grandparents who recall vividly the terror that polio struck into their families when they were young, and therefore this could be an especially interesting book to read for book reports or other school assignments. Home schooling parents also might be especially interested since the book could easily serve as a gateway for an interdisciplinary lesson combining astronomy, biology, history, and literature.
More about polio and iron lungs...
After reading this novel, my curiosity was piqued about iron lungs and whether they were still around today. I would have liked to see an Author's Note in the novel providing young readers with some photos and additional factual information. However, a quick search of the Internet found many fascinating resources.
An overview of the history of iron lungs can be found in an on-line exhibit from the University of Virginia.
I also found this bizarre photo of a smiling little girl in an iron lung, that reminded me of how Lasky describes Phyllis with her beautiful head and hair sticking out of the giant machine.
Polio victims could survive for many years in the iron lung machine. Marsha Mason, who died in 2009, lived for over 60 years in one, even graduating from college and writing a book.
There is still no cure for polio. However, because of the discovery of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955, polio has been eradicated from most countries. According to the World Health Organization, in 2008, only four countries in the world still had polio epidemics, down from more than 125 in 1988. The remaining countries where the disease is still found are Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.