CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 11. . . .November 13, 2015
Shirley Marie Hartung.
Kitchener, ON: Hartung Press (www.authorsmhartung.com), 2014.
88 pp., trade pbk., $9.95 + $2.95 shipping = $12.90.
Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.
Review by Ruth Latta.
What is polio, you ask? When I was still a child, polio was a frightening illness that killed and crippled many people. Nowadays we don't hear much about polio but we hear about AIDS which is a disease that is killing many people around the world, just as polio did years ago. Although there is hope for a cure for AIDS someday, at this point prevention is the only way of dealing with polio. But thanks to Dr. Salk and his team who developed the first successful polio vaccine, people don't have to worry about getting polio any more... However, there was and still is nothing to undo the paralysis that sometimes comes with polio.
Grounded centres on Marie, a first-person narrator who is about to turn 10-years-old in the summer of 1954. She is disappointed because she expected to celebrate her birthday with her cousin Ricky from Boston, MA, who usually spends part of the summer with her and her parents on their southwestern Ontario farm. But this summer, Ricky is in an iron lung, fighting for his life after contracting polio.
Author Hartung captures the unease over this dread disease that pervaded the early 1950s before Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine came into use in 1955. Marie is "grounded" at the start of the novel because her parents won't let her go to the movies or swimming, for fear of her contracting polio. Later, she is physically grounded when she develops a mild case of the disease.
Billy also gets polio and ends up in a wheelchair. By having three major characters fall ill, Hartung shows how the severity of polio varied among different cases. In time, Cousin Ricky can breathe independently of the iron lung and, by the novel's end, has progressed through braces to crutches.
The time frame of the novel is a year, from Marie's tenth birthday to her eleventh. Another annual landmark event for the children is the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the scene of a more-or-less happy ending in 1955.
Grounded is written in a style accessible for the age group eight to ten. The first-person narration is varied by the inclusion of letters, mostly from Ricky's mother about his progress. The novel is full of information about the symptoms, effects and treatment of polio, and also includes period details, such as the names of TV shows popular in 1954-5. Yet the novel is lacking in scenes rich in mood-evoking sensory detail. If Hartung had shown us Marie running through the fields with a dog, or playing in new mown hay, or picking fresh vegetables or berries, readers would experience the beauties and pleasures of a child's active life on a farm, and would fully realize how tragic a loss of mobility would be. Early in the novel, when Marie and Billy are at the pond, we read: "I think of how Tammy and I used to jump from the rubber tube tied to the big willow tree overhanging the pond. The water looks so cool and inviting." This eighty-three page novel could use more such descriptions.
Do Canadian children need to know about a disease which has been largely eradicated in the western world? I would say yes; it doesn't hurt for them to know, but the comparison of polio to AIDS (see introductory quote) seems unnecessary and may cause confusion and worry among young readers. Children who are skimmers, rather than close readers, may think the two diseases are similar and related.
One reason to educate children about this crippling epidemic of the past is to show the need, then and now, for an inclusive attitude toward people who are "differently abled", and for physical environments in which they can function and fulfil their dreams. Hartung includes several situations in which kindness is shown to children with mobility problems; I would have liked a more direct approach in this area. Possibly the author does so in the activity book to go with Grounded, which was not included along with the review copy. The sample activity mentioned in Grounded is: "As a class, make a list of physical handicaps. Then go on a walking tour of your school or public building. Look for things that help people with handicaps."
Hartung dedicates this, her first novel, to Dr. Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, and to two people close to her who lived with the damage of polio. She includes a picture labelled "Marie before the fever." Obviously Grounded was a labour of love, one which will educate the young and bring back memories of a tense time to those of us old enough to remember.
Ruth Latta's most recent novel for grown-ups, Most of All, is available on Amazon Kindle. Her most recent young adult novel is The Songcatcher and Me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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