Speaking of female friendships…
I don’t believe any of us have written about the Dear Canada series on this blog, have we? Time to remedy that with To Stand on My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson.
The title itself is pretty neat. Noreen’s desire is to stand on her own because once she falls ill with polio she is bedridden, unable to sit up (her mother has to tie her to a chair or she would fall out), let alone stand or walk. And she is also, at twelve years old, beginning to strike out for herself. Not by rejecting her parents, who love her deeply, but by expressing her more critical and independent thoughts in her diary, which, it must be said, Noreen keeps because her mother insists, and soon learns to exploit: if she is writing in her diary, she is not doing chores.
And finally the title is apt though seemingly contradictory because of the story’s focus on friendship, and how Noreen and her friends support each other (sometimes literally, as well as emotionally) and enable each other to grow up and live: to stand on their own – as individuals in community.
There are two groups of friends in the story: those at home, and those in the hospital. Initially, Noreen has one closest friend, Bessie, with whom she wants to spend as much time as possible during the summer. Ann Lute is a background figure, a poor immigrant girl whom neither Noreen nor Bessie wants to associate. When Noreen is in the hospital and later quarantined at home, Ann writes a well-wishing letter, and she and Noreen become friends, a relationship that becomes increasingly important to both of them.
Noreen feels intense guilt, though, because of the unkind things she and Bessie had done to Ann earlier in the summer. When Noreen is unable, because of her feelings, to reassure Ann that they can be friends in school as well as privately in the summer, Ann feels her status as second-class friend is confirmed. Noreen intends to write a letter to apologize and explain what she couldn’t find the words in time to say.
And then she doesn’t. Friendships with Bessie and with Ann are mutually exclusive, it seems, and Noreen has lost them both.
And then Noreen is sent away to different hospital where she shares a ward with three other girls who have also been disabled by polio: Edna, Thelma, and Julie. There is a boys’ ward, too, and all the children become friends. Especially the girls. They tease each other and embarrass each other and share stories. Noreen reads to them from her copy of Heidi.
And as they recover – slowly, at different rates – they save each other. Thelma comforts Edna. Noreen and Edna and Julie tell Thelma, who has been abandoned by her family and is angry and ready to give up on life, that they care for her.
Noreen writes that letter to Ann.
What I liked about this book: the many female friendships; the history (Amelia Earhart has just disappeared and Noreen is fascinated by her); the way the changes in treatment for polio survivors are shown (immobilize the limbs, or move them in water?); the pain of losing control of your body; the survival tactics and determined attitude that got people through the Depression – also the tension that lack of money brings; Noreen’s close-knit family and their characters.
At the end of each Dear Canada book is a short biographical sketch of the rest of the (fictional) protagonist’s life. These sketches don’t shy away from death and difficulty, but they also provide a realistic look at how someone’s life might have went. In Noreen’s case, this meant continued close friendships with several characters we meet in the pages, which was very satisfying to read. Each diary also ends with photographs and drawings of people, places, and items from the time and place depicted in the novel. The images after Noreen’s story included photographs of children being treated for polio, hydrotherapy, and a toddler being encouraged to walk using hand rails.*
The Dear Canada series might not be a contender for major literary prizes, but the books are excellent as well-researched, fun-to-read stories set in (Canadian!) history with facts to back up the events and situations portrayed. Noreen’s polio epidemic diary also scores points in my book for its portrayal of female friendships, disabled characters, and families in poverty. Noreen’s story is especially timely with the inexplicable emergence of anti-vaxxers and the (unfortunately more explicable) resurgence of polio and other eradicable diseases in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other areas riven by conflict.
Hopefully, soon, polio will be a disease of the past. (p. 169)
* Just like Korra uses in season 4 when Katara is teaching her to walk again.**
** One of the boys Noreen is friends with has to use an iron lung to breathe, like the one described in The Diviners. There’s a photo at the end of the book of this frightening-looking machine.