In and out, in and out, the air moved at a steady beat. Summoning all his willpower, Dale gritted his jaw and tightened the muscles in his neck as best he could. A jab of pain shot through his throat. Squeezing his eyes shut, he felt warm tears trickling out the corners, edging slowly along his temples.
His willpower, though, was no match for the machine. Dale fought for control, the pull on his chest was unrelenting. The machine drew life-giving oxygen through the tube, expanding his lungs. A moment later, the pressure was reversed, and he had to expel the carbon dioxide, the process repeating itself at an even, robot-like rate, the motor vibrating below. The machine didn’t care whether he wanted to breathe or not.
In 1955, a few months after the sudden death of his mother, 14-year-old Dale Melnyk is stricken with polio and taken to Winnipeg’s King George Hospital. In the course of his recovery, he spends time in an iron lung, graduates to a rocker machine that helps to retrain his breathing, and eventually learns to walk again. He makes friends with some of the other isolation ward residents: Charlene, a Métis girl whose family lives in Rooster Town; Lindsay, a boy who thoughtlessly repeats the bigoted views of his family; and George, whose own battle with polio proves more complicated than Dale’s. He also deals with his own personal challenges: a seemingly uncaring father who will not visit Dale and who discounts any lingering disabilities as malingering; his younger brother Brent, who develops polio as well, partially because his father’s anti-vaccine views prevented him from being inoculated; and Dale’s constant worry that he won’t recover enough to continue his hockey career.
Zaidman’s strength is her attention to the details of mid-century polio treatment and recovery, including the specialized equipment, accommodations made for kids on the polio wards, and the public’s enormous fear of the disease that caused further hardships for those who were already suffering. Extensive back matter offers further information about polio, touches on Zaidman’s extensive research into this era and disease, and includes an interview with the author. While the story threads seem to get tied up a bit too neatly (Dad’s transformation into “nice guy” feels very abrupt, and it seems unrealistic that younger brother Brent, confined indefinitely to an iron lung, will have a good life because he plays chess well), today’s readers will appreciate the historical parallels to Covid.
Kay Weisman, a former youth services librarian at West Vancouver Memorial Library, is the author of If You Want to Visit a Sea Garden.