In the 1950s, before Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin finished their race for thecure, young "polios" were often shuttled off to Warm Springs PolioFoundation to recover the use of their paralyzed limbs. The Georgia hospitaland rehabilitation center established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt offeredstate-of-the-art medical care and genuine community. But it was also a vaguelyDickensian place where everyone was at least temporarily orphaned.
Susan Richards Shreve's experience there was complex and emotionallynuanced: she emptied bedpans, nurtured babies, befriended a priest, exercisedher storytelling gifts, and fell innocently in love. But what traces of thistwo-year sojourn remain in her memory and her adult life and, for that matter,in our history of the time? This is the question at the heart of Shreve'smemoir, Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven,whose title also plays on the notion of "traces" of muscle left afterparalysis.
An English professor at George Mason University as well as a prolificnovelist, Shreve constructs her narrative by weaving back and forth in time,and hedges it with a certain reticence that may be personal or may be literary.The result is delicate and precisely observed—but also frustrating, withfew obvious dramatic payoffs. We get at first only fugitive glimpses of herlife at Warm Springs, including her painful surgeries, tentative friendships,and (not entirely unjustified) feelings of abandonment. Shreve teases us,circling around the tragedy that finally caused her eviction from thisimperfect Eden and that still haunts her today.
Aside perhaps from her polio, Shreve's mother was the most powerfulinfluence on her childhood. Mostly loving and supportive, her mother appears tohave suffered from a variety of phobias that the family took in stride. For anentire year, she confined herself to her bedroom and the family ordered itsexistence around her. "We lived in …a finely spun fairy-tale,"thinking this life was normal, Shreve reports. Her mother was alsoafraid to drive alone. Later on, she fled her daughter's surgical bedsideat Warm Springs—a pivotal abandonment—to accommodate her ownstepmother, the embodiment of fairy-tale evil.
Or was she? Both memory and perception, Shreve knows, may derive as muchfrom need as truth. "I didn't realize until I was older," shewrites, "that seeing is a matter of choice." Her first, early attemptto write about Warm Springs was an unpublished novel ("that quite awfulmanuscript," she calls it). Its ending reversed reality, creating a morejust outcome—what she required at the time. She and other"polios" were, she now writes, "proficient at denial." Thememoir is thus an act of courage: an attempt to see clearly her stigmatizingillness, her own adolescent rebellion against it, and the devastatingconsequences of that rebellion on the boy she loved.
In Warm Springs, she spirits herself and the reader back intothe body and mind of her girlish self, recalling the powerful enchantments caston her by a priest, a baby, and a young boy, Joey Buckley, whose dearest andmost hopeless wish was to play college football. With the exception of onegirlfriend, none of her companions at Warm Springs remained part of her life.She wrote the book, she says, "not so much to discover anyone I'dlost, but to understand why I had wanted to lose them." In the process,though, she recovers precious traces of her past, along with a mostly forgottenslice of American social history.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, writes for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Mother Jones, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.