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Brenda Berrie


by Brenda Berrie, posted April 4, 2012

First. Full Disclosure: I had polio in the early fifties when I was about eight, in what turned out to be the last big epidemic just before the Sabin and Salk vaccines were developed.

As I like to recall that time, along with the late Bill Rosen (z’l) we ran riot all over the old children’s hospital, dumped food coloring into aquariums, ran the elevator to the top of the building and generally raised hell. We also shared in the Sister Kenny treatment of hot, wet wool foments and pain.

Both of us were lucky. We had relatively mild cases and we were struck at the end of the epidemic, in the fall of the year. As it was, we both missed many weeks, or months, of school and I spend years following at HMSC Chippewa and in the office of the late Dr. Deacon, undertaking various therapies. I have a memory of being damp from exercises in the Chippewa pool from age eight to about 15 when I flatly refused to go for any more therapy. For years after, I shrugged off exercise as having been ‘ruined’ for me. It was only when I wrote a poem, in my forties that I realized I’d been just as frightened as everyone else and that iron lungs had long figured in my various hospital nightmares. I say all this by way of introducing one of Phil Roth’s latest novels, a short work, Nemesis, about a major polio epidemic that struck the community of Newark, New York, in 1944.

The main protagonist is an exemplary young man, Bucky Cantor, refused in the World War 11 draft because of poor eyesight but who is in every way, a hero. Having been raised by his grandparents he is a phys ed teachers, and, in the summer, a playground supervisor, respected by parents, loved by the children, most of whom are boys from traditional Jewish backgrounds.
Most of us in Winnipeg, knew men like this man.When the epidemic strikes Newark, Bucky does everything perfectly, defending his children from outside threats and bullies, counseling restraint and control, visiting the family of those struck down, being present at funerals. (Many of the youngest victims died very quickly.)
Because the means of transmission was not really understood he tries to keep his community, middle class Jewish parents and their children, calm, but, when his girl friend, the daughter of a doctor, begs him to leave his playground job for a position at a summer camp in the Poconos, he allows himself to be persuaded on the grounds that he will be safe. He leaves, and only a few days later the playgrounds are closed by the Newark Board of Health. (People in Winnipeg will remember Sherbrook Pool and playground wading pools being drained and other ‘hygiene’ attempts being taken in Winnipeg to prevent the spread of polio.)
Bucky is disgusted with himself because he might have stayed, and not resigned, not left his charges. (As he sees things.) In the meantime though, his camp is not a haven. Many children there are struck down by polio and there is a questions as to whether he is a ‘Typhoid Mary’ type carrier – a question he asks himself and answers in the affirmative -- and then he becomes ill too.
Years later we see him again. His life is in ruins. He holds a marginal job. He has a withered arm and leg. He is dealing with the physical aftermath of the polio, something most of us never dreamed of–post polio syndrome--with its enervating muscle weakness and other symptoms.
Having sent his devoted girl friend away, he has never allowed himself to love again, seeming fearful that he will carry something else devastating into someone else’s life.
Nemesis is not one of Roth’s great or huge books. Rather, as with many authors as they grow older, Roth has written a ‘message’ novel, of contagion and unintended consequences, using polio as the metaphor, but also about a true life experience, now in the past for most people.
I think of some of the later books of Pearl S. Buck, where the message was the whole point, as she wrote about the problems of mixed race children, and of what communism was doing to China. Though written as novels those books were thinly disguised messages of her personal philosophy. Nemesis is the same. Even his narrator in Nemesis—one of Bucky’s boys – is barely introduced, and only comes into his own in the last chapters of the book.
For those who often find Roth’s prose troubling, his insistence on sexuality as a metaphor for the various troubles of the world, distressing or depressing, Nemesis will actually be an easier read then many of his other works. Because he has set Nemesis in an intensely Jewish community, it will ring true in it’s depiction of family relationships, attitudes toward sickness and death, and in about what constitutes heroism to the community.
The backdrop of World War II also adds greatly to the novel.For those of us who had polio and were lucky enough to survive, and who, more than a half century later, have to deal with Post-Polio Syndrome, the book is uncannily accurate, and almost as frightening as the disease itself.
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