The Aftermath of Polio

Portrait of a clever young girl with many strikes against her

Deep compassion is not the normal reaction to Garth Drabinsky, but I found his comments about prison isolation genuinely moving. “It was devastating,” he said of his experience in Beaver Creek Institution. “I hadn’t experienced anything like that since I was three years old when I was moved to isolation and quarantine when I first had polio … Every time that door slammed shut … I was overwhelmed.” It is not the anguish of his current isolation that Drabinsky laments, but the return of the terror and despair of a three-year-old torn from the security of home and love. Much more is known today about the lifelong psychological impact of this kind of rupture at an early age than was understood in 1953 when Drabinksy succumbed to the epidemic. Survivors of childhood polio often carry a bottomless emotional insecurity through their lives that can hit them hard when they least expect it.

In her evocative novel The Western Light, Susan Swan portrays the complexities of character development in the aftermath of polio. The twelve-year-old narrator, Mary Alice Bradford, whose nickname is Mouse, struggles not only with a crooked leg and awkward gait (“a slight roll, like a sailor, because my weight sank down onto my good foot”) but also a painfully uncomfortable brace consisting of a metal bar that extends from her pelvis to her foot. Perhaps it is the constant attachment of an external device to her lower half that divides Mouse’s sense of herself in two. She is one part able-bodied Mary, the other part an internal alter ego she calls Hindrance, her name for her withered leg, whose part in their imaginary dialogue is to harshly call Mouse back to reality. When Mary laments that “I hate it when the kids at school whisper, ‘Here comes Peg Leg’,” Hindrance’s response is “You’ll just have to lump it, won’t you?”

Mary’s dialogues with Hindrance intrude disruptively into the story in a way that is unpleasant for the reader, but this allows Swan to imitate the complex oscillation of a child trying to put a deficit and the pain it causes into perspective. Mouse alternates between expressing need and trying to eliminate the mere acknowledgement of need. Hindrance’s consistent withholding of sympathy allows Mouse to incrementally accept the deprivation that will always be hers. “Who would like you? You’re short and skinny, and you walk like a duck,” Hindrance tells Mouse, with a cruelty that hardly seems necessary. But Mary proves herself able to consider this truth. “Maybe Hindrance had a point,” she observes. The interplay between Mouse and Hindrance ultimately creates a young woman with a maturity that the adults around her lack, and a character who does not manage her handicap by cultivating compensatory grandiose notions of herself.

Life has handicapped Mouse in three other ways. Losing her mother to a brain tumour in 1952 at age four, the year before losing her mobility in 1953, has deprived her of maternal love, and the round-the-clock demands on her father, a surgeon and general practitioner, prevents paternal love from filling the gap. It is not just her father’s punishing schedule—from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. and on call the other eight hours of the day—that deprives Mary. It is his almost complete lack of interest in her even when he is around. “My father never asked me much about my life,” observes Mouse at the outset of her tale. Her basic needs are provided for, but there seems to be little concession to the fact that Mouse is a motherless child and a disabled one at that. That Morley Bradford fails to notice how disturbingly insensitive the cluster of adults is to whom his daughter’s care is consigned—from the shaming, bossy-pants housekeeper with marital aspirations toward her employer, to the disgruntled maternal aunt more interested in her own romantic prospects than her niece’s welfare, to the interfering and wealthy grandmother who bestows more largesse than love—indicates the extent to which Mary must psychologically fend for herself.

Beyond that, Mouse has the blessing and the burden of being an intellectually gifted girl, solemnly using such phrases as “per usual” and words like “S o terick.” Readers of Swan’s Trillium–award-winning The Wives of Bath, to which The Western Light is a prequel, will know that Mouse has skipped two grades before hitting puberty. Which brings us to her third problem: she is hovering on the border between pre-pubescence and pubescence, which leaves her in a confused state of longing with a heightened curiosity about the romantic yearnings of the adults around her as well as her own tender aspirations of love.

When Gentleman James Pilkie, a hometown hockey hero, returns to Madoc’s Landing to be admitted to the local asylum for the criminally insane, Mouse finds the perfect object of preteen infatuation. Pilkie’s glorious career with the Detroit Red Wings took a disastrous turn the year they won the Stanley Cup after he sustained concussions when he was thrown head first into the boards more than once. His subsequent erratic behaviour included allegedly murdering his wife and child. Pleading insanity has spared him a murder conviction but has legally backfired: sane criminals are eligible for parole, but those declared mentally ill are denied the possibility of release even if their symptoms go into remission. Known in Madoc’s Landing as the lighthouse keeper’s son, whose life was saved when Doc Bradford instructed his parents on how to remove his ruptured appendix over a ship-to-shore radio, Pilkie cuts a dashing figure, wearing a raccoon coat and charming nearly everyone he meets with a gallant showmanship. Mouse and her father share the conviction that Pilkie is not a threat and deserves to have his case reviewed.

Even from his confinement at the “Bughouse” (based on the Waypoint Centre in Penetanguishene, Ontario), Pilkie manages to pay more attention to Mary than anyone in her household does. He rescues her from a humiliating rape-like attack by local bullies and gives her epistolary hockey coaching, assuring her that she can master the skills despite her leg. To Hindrance’s deflating realism he provides an inflating optimism. “Learning to skate is hard for everyone, no matter who they are. So use your hockey stick to help you balance.” Pilkie’s letters inflame Mary’s infatuation, until she discovers that he and her aunt have been toying with her feelings to create their own romantic decoy. Forced to recognize that Hindrance was right—a cripple cannot hope for what others have—she begins to fully register the measure of the neglect and the emotional indifference to which she’s been subjected. Although the novel culminates with her attempt to run away, resulting in an action film–like chase across the frozen ice and flowing waters of Georgian Bay, Mary emerges with a grounded understanding of herself that balances between Hindrance and Pilkie. “The next year I was shipping out myself, heading for the city and boarding school, … starting a new life … in the world that I hoped was waiting for girls like me.”

Mary’s vague formulation of “girls like me” is significant because it indicates her growing awareness that she is surrounded by girls who are not like her and never will be. Her willingness to leave the close-knit world she has always known makes her genuinely heroic. The reader is left with the sense that despite her disability, Mary Bradford will not develop the kind of overachieving mania that leads to excess, but will attain something all the more impressive for being down to earth.