What I'm Reading Now

As we move slowly, six feet apart from each other, through the coronavirus pandemic, I’m reminded of another pandemic.

The Golden Age By Joan London, Europa Editions, NY, 2014

As we move slowly, six feet apart from each other, through the coronavirus pandemic, I’m reminded of another pandemic.

Before the polio vaccine was developed and made widely available in the mid-nineteen fifties, this crippling and deadly disease came back every summer. When it surged, people were afraid to go to the beach, to public pools, or on public transportation.

And most frighteningly, the virus seemed to target children. Compared to the coronavirus, its effects were much more severe. If polio didn’t kill its victims with lightning speed, as if often did, it left them crippled. Some regained the ability to walk, some never did.

Like the Covid-19, the symptoms started with aching limbs, fever, and a headache. Then the nervous system was viciously attacked.

This virus traveled to the ends of the earth, affecting every continent.

A few years ago, I read a novel about the ravages of the polio epidemic as it hit Perth, Australia. The Golden Age was an actual polio rehabilitation hospital for children there. In this marvelous story, two of the teenage patients at The Golden Age develop a bond that develops into love. Frank is the son of recent Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and Elsa Is the daughter of an overworked mother with many other children to care for. Each of the teenagers begins adolescence not only cut off from family, recovering from a dreadful disease which will always set them apart from others but also carrying within them their parents’ anxieties.

Fortunately for the children at The Golden Age, Sister Penny, (the head nurse) is remarkably compassionate. Elsa remembered,

“When she first arrived here from the hospital in the ambulance, Sister Penny had put her arms around her and carried her inside. It felt like being loved. In the isolation ward, all the nurses had worn masks and gloves.”

London’s spare writing style reminds us, in this paragraph, one of the difficulties of living in the time of contagion. How profoundly against our natures it is for human beings to act like our neighbors, our children, carry something lethal within them.

Sister Penny’s character, so originally drawn, is a reminder of the true heroes of our own age, the caretakers of the sick. Sister Penny made this novel absolutely stand out for me. This book, focused on people in a sad situation, as Frank says, “an island of little maimed animals,” is no dystopian horror story. It is a story about human vulnerability, our human flaws, too, but ultimately about our best natures.

A story for our times.

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