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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Polio Story Compelling, Disturbing Look At A Life-Saving Iron Monster

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"And moving thro' a mirror clear

That hangs before her all the year,

Shadows of the world appear..."

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson; The Lady of Shalott

Ever since polio broke out across the U.S., 11-year-old Georgie Mason's been fascinated with the disease. She's read up on its history, causes and treatment. New deaths are chronicled every day in the newspaper, statistics she carefully records in her notebook. As much as she blames polio for the incredible boredom fest that is the summer of 1952 (no swimming pools, no movie theaters, no public events, no nothing), Georgie's obsessed with the epidemic. So, when her family moves next door to a girl in an iron lung, she can hardly believe her luck. When the girl turns out to be a beautiful teenager who welcomes visits from Georgie and her brother, well, Georgie's pretty much over the moon with delight.

According to Georgie's good friend Noah (as in, Webster), an iron lung is "a device for artificial respiration in which rhythmic alternations in the air pressure in a chamber surrounding a patient's chest force air into and out of the lungs" (from Merriam-Webster online). To Georgie, it's a tentacled, glinty-eyed beast straight out of a sci fi film. Even though she knows the contraption is breathing for her new friend, Phyllis, it looks to all the world like the wheezing monster has swallowed her whole. Georgie's as intrigued with the machine as she is repulsed by it.

Georgie's teenage brother, who doesn't notice anything he can't find through a telescope or shoot through a hoop, is suddenly showing a whole lot of interest in not just the artificial lung, but its occupant. It's easy to see why - Phyllis is bright, pretty and as flirtatious as any high school girl. She may view the world only as reflected through the iron lung's mirrors, but she sees clearly enough, apparently, to know what she wants. Since Emmett's a lot smoother on the court than off, Georgie's all for this "starter kit" romance. That is, until the couple stops including her in their star-gazing sessions. Her jealousy makes her tune into things she never noticed before, like how Emmett's completely at Phyllis' beck and call; how, despite the girl's condition, she's got a chilling hold on the people around her; and how her seemingly innocent flirting has a decidedly sinister feel. Is it just the envy talking or is Phyllis up to something? The Kellers' give their daughter everything, so what is it that Phyllis wants from Emmett? Maybe it's just teenage lovey-dovey stuff, the kind of thing Georgie loves to read about in her Archie comics, or maybe it's something much, much more frightening ...

Polio's a disease about which I know very little, so Chasing Orion by Kathryn Lasky fascinated me from the get-go. Lasky's description of the panic that spread along with its outbreak is unnerving as is her depiction of the not-so-helpless Phyllis. As horrifying as the idea of living life in an iron lung is, it's Phyllis' calculating manipulation of the people around her that makes the story so disturbing. Although the book is recommended for ages 9 and up, I would never hand a tale so dark to someone that young. While the book discusses issues that are important for everyone to contemplate - What constitutes a life? Is it right to keep someone alive by artificial means, if all it means is prolonged suffering? Whose happiness is more important - the patient's or her family's? - they're questions that confound even the aged. So, while I recommend this book for the compelling subject matter and skilled writing, it's not something I would pass on to every reader. I'm not even sure how I felt about it. Riveted, yes, but horrified, too. And so very, very relieved to be living in 2010.

(Readalikes: A little like We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language, vague sexual innuendo, and mature topics (see discussion in last paragraph of review)

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Chasing Orion from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

Iron lung image from Wikipedia.


  1. Wow! This sounds like something I must read. Thanks for the great review and making me aware of it!

  2. This sounds like a really interesting book...I don't think I've ever seen one with this subject matter before. I think I recognize the author too. Great review...and thanks for visiting my blog! :)

  3. Dang it. I read another book with a girl who gets polio but I cant remember the name of it.Its killing me.....

  4. How interesting to read your review. I finished a memoir by Peg Kehret called Small Steps; The year I got Polio. Peg Kehret is the author of a boat-load of children's books and she chronicles the time when she developed polio and was struck down by the disease for 9 months. She was one of the very lucky ones. It is fairly short but could really add some impact to this book. I was amazed at how much I learned. (PS - my students found research recently that suggest that if you read 5 books on a subject that you are considered an "expert in the field". My third graders are now aiming at becoming experts!! Here's another book to help you!) :)

    As usual, your reviews are terrific and tantalizing.

  5. Nicola - You're welcome :)

    Escapist - Me neither, at least not in a MG book. The author has written a lot of books, although I've never read anything else by her.

    Laura H - I hate that! Maybe it's the same one Gaye mentioned in the comment below yours??

    Gaye - I'll have to check that one out. Sounds fascinating. An expert in only 5 books? Sweet!

  6. Aha!! I found it. Had to google it. Its the book Blue by Joyce Hostetter. I really liked it. Wish I could read more books by this author. We only have a couple of her books at my libraries.


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