I’ve been skipping out on the Canadian content lately! I must remedy that. I’ve been wanting to do this book for quite awhile because it’s just so interesting and extremely readable, and it’s nearly impossible to find books targeted at kids that deal with epidemics of disease where the focus isn’t the acute fear of the disease, but the aftermath.
To Stand on My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1937, Barbara Haworth-Attard, 2010.
A couple of things of note about this: I love that it’s set in Saskatoon but the focus isn’t on how terrible life in the prairies is–it just happens to be the setting. This is Haworth-Attard’s second Dear Canada book, and while I hated the first one, I really loved this one. Mostly because I thought her first one, A Trail of Broken Dreams, was unfulfilling and depressing and lacked focus, but also because it was one of those novels where you don’t get a terrible clear picture of the narrator? This one is much more direct. And secondly–it’s set in 1937, but it has a very “modern” feel, which I know is strange for a historical novel, but it’s much more directly relatable than, say, Not A Nickel To Spare, which is set just five years earlier and which I really hated. That one feels ancient–this novel is so much more relatable!
So this diary’s protagonist, Noreen, is twelve years old and lives in Saskatoon with her parents and her two brothers. Her grandfather lives nearby, as does her aunt and uncle and cousin–who are not so badly affected by the Depression, like Noreen’s family has been. They’re limping along OK, not great, but not in the poorhouse either, and it’s summer and very hot and things are kind of dull at home. So Noreen hangs out with her friend Bessie and go goof off around town, or stays home to read and help her mother clean–“Mother is forever complaining about the house being dusty and it is. I know because I’m the one who has to dust it.”
Bessie is not a great person, really, and when she and Noreen are wandering around they run into a classmate of theirs, Ann, a Polish immigrant girl who is much poorer than either of them. They throw MUD at her, which is awful, but Noreen regrets it instantly and I have to say I enjoy a book where the protagonist openly screws up. It’s refreshing. Noreen and Bessie and Noreen’s brother Edmund sneak into the city pool, which they are strictly forbidden from attending because Noreen’s mother is petrified of polio, but they do it a few times because they’re kids and it’s like a hundred degrees in Saskatoon.
However, unsurprisingly (have you seen the title of the book?), Noreen comes down with polio. At first she’s just mildly sick for a day or two with a fever and some body aches, which her mother attributes to heatstroke, but then we smash cut ahead two weeks and she’s in the hospital, so sick with polio that she’s in the isolation ward. “One time when I was very sick, I thought the[nurses and doctors wearing masks] were ghosts and screamed because I thought I was dead….The hospital smells of medicine, food, and poop…I’m scared here.” Oh God. Noreen is petrified of everything, mostly because polio has no cure (still has no cure, actually) and she’s convinced she’ll be paralyzed for life. She has a point. People were.
She’s in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down, and in terrible pain. They give her splints, but there’s really not a lot else they can do other than wait for her to recover from the polio infection itself and then start working on her paralyzed legs. There’s another boy in the ward, Eugene, whose paralysis makes it hard for him to breathe, which scares her even more, and she’s completely freaked out and lonely and ill and confused and this whole thing is horrible. (The idea of it, not the writing. The writing is terrific!) She has to use a bedpan, which is awful, and can never do anything besides lie in bed. Always. She doesn’t even hear from Bessie, but she does get a letter from Ann saying she wished her well and hopes she gets better.
After a MONTH in the hospital, she gets to go home, despite the fact that her prognosis is that she will never walk again. She needs to remain in the braces, and her parents have to do everything for her, which can’t be easy. “I wonder why I got polio when everyone else went to the pool, too. Why me?” Deep thoughts for a book for god-damned 12-year-olds! Noreen’s grandfather argues with the doctors about whether or not she should stay in the leg braces lest she get withered legs, and her brother isn’t allowed to come near her and finally tells her he’s afraid she isn’t like herself anymore–she can’t do any of the thing s she used to do. She can’t go to school with him in the fall–she has to stay home and be tutored by their grandfather. Noreen is upset just like her brother is–she can’t do anything!
Ann comes by for a visit, and while Noreen is put off initially, she comes around to her and Ann shows her how to tat lace to make ornaments and bookmarks and stuff, and they start to become actual friends. Bessie, by contrast, dropped Noreen like a hot potato because 12-year-old girls can be nightmare human beings to be friends with. Ann’s friendship isn’t enough to sustain Noreen, though, and she gets depressed and bored and quiet and starts failing again. She gets her toes to move a tiny bit, but there’s just nothing going on in her life besides recovery and it’s killing her.
At the beginning of October, she learns she’s going to be SENT AWAY, although not really sent away for good, but sent away to a rehab facility in Regina for three weeks. She is losing her mind in panic, but her mom points out about a million times that it’s not forever and the goal is for her to walk again–not just lie in bed forever. So off she goes to the hospital, where she stays in a ward with three other girls–Edna, who is almost eighteen, and Thelma, who is “very homely” and “tough,” and Julie, who is very quiet. That’s like, her defining trait. Well, some people are quiet, I guess. Edna is in a Bradford frame, which keeps you strapped down and your arms up at a 90-degree angle, and which sounds incredibly, deeply, horrifyingly uncomfortable. The girls all get physio massage and training on how to walk with braces and crutches, and they spend most of their time socializing because what the hell else are you going to do confined to bed.
Noreen learns to use a wheelchair as well, and reads Heidi to the other girls, and does homework and practices standing. She teaches the other girls tatting as well, and befriends one of the boys in the boys’ ward who races around in his wheelchair because 16-year-old boys are all the same. Horrifyingly, her physiotherapist tells her that Thelma’s parents LEFT HER at the hospital FOR EVER–they had eight other children and a farm and couldn’t take care of “a cripple” on top of things. So she became a ward of the state, which is why she’s so nasty all the time. I would be too, if my parents had dumped me off on a hospital after being sick!
Eventually, Noreen begins walking with the crutches, just a few steps at a time, but way better than she had been doing before! She writes to Ann, gossips with the other girls about the nurses and doctors (it’s very Grey’s Anatomy-in-the-30s, I would definitely read a novel about nurses and doctors in a regional hospital in the 1930s with romantic dramas), and they have a Halloween party. Well, as much as they can have a party in bed and in wheelchairs. God, this book is depressing. No, I take that back–the setting is plenty depressing, but there’s an awful lot of action to liven things up a bit.
There’s a good bit of character development in this book, even in minor characters–more so than most DA/DC novels. Not only does Noreen grow up quite a lot, her brother develops in maturity, and Thelma does as well. It’s very nice to see and very well done for such a short novel.
Noreen ends up staying an extra week to learn how to really do well on the crutches, especially on stairs. Julie goes home just before she does, and they all promise to stay in touch and write to one another–it’s oddly like summer camp, I guess? Except the worst summer camp ever. Noreen’s mother turns up in November to take her home, and while Noreen is deeply worried about going back to school, she’s beyond thankful to be going home.
At home, her parents surprise her with a new bedroom on the sun porch–partially because she can’t manage the stairs all the time, and partially because her grandfather is moving in with them. I really like this bit–it’s very honest, because the new room is portrayed to Noreen like a big treat, but she doesn’t want it at all and would much rather just go back to the way things were. But they can’t, of course, and she doesn’t want to insult her parents by saying it, so she just mopes to herself instead. It’s very, very sad in its own little way.
Noreen doesn’t get to go back to school by the end of the book, but she does Gain An Understanding of how good things can come out of terrible ones–like her friendship with Ann and the other girls, and her ambition to become a physical therapist when she gets older. So in the epilogue we learn that she does get to go back and finish high school with Ann, and during the war volunteers at the hospital with soldiers who had lost limbs. She goes to Toronto to go to university for physio, and then comes back to Saskatoon to marry one of the soldiers she worked with during the war and had five children. While Ann never married, she did become a massively successful seamstress and opened her own clothing store, and continued to hang out with Noreen forever.
Rating: B+. My only complaint here is that it’s on the short side! I would have loved to see this entire book developed more fully, as it’s just about 150 pages and I think there is so much more room for growth here! It does a lot of things extremely well–terrific example of Noreen’s character development, her fear and acceptance of polio, an unflinching look at how much it sucked physically and how much pain and suffering she and the other girls go through, and more. I do really enjoy how it takes place during the Depression in the prairies, and while that colours the action it’s never the focus of it, you know? There is more to their lives than being extremely poor, which is nice to see. I loved that. I just wish there had been more to read about! If this had been about 25-50 pages longer, it would have been a definite A book.