The Golden Age by Joan London


It's hard to imagine that a polio convalescent home for children in Western Australia was really named The Golden Age, but in fact it did exist from 1949 to 1959. Otherwise, the author says, this is a work of fiction.

The grim factor of this book is high at the outset. A Hungarian family with one son escaped the Holocaust while their relatives perished; they hoped to emigrate to a location where the mother might resume her life as a concert pianist. 

In Vienna they were living in a dormitory with only a curtain between them and fifty other people. Some had been there for years. So they accepted. When at last they landed in Fremantle, Ida wanted to get straight back onto the ship.

And then young Frank contracts polio. What a dreadful thing for parents to have to worry about. I do recall the worry, though my memory of receiving an oral dose of the vaccine in my first grade class in 1951 or 1952 is apparently a false one if Wikipedia is right.

When we meet Frank, he is 13 and living in The Golden Age. He is beginning to learn to walk but most importantly, he has made a connection to a beautiful girl about his age. At this point he has already learned that he wants to write poetry, having been inspired by an older boy he knew in a different institution. Sullivan was confined to an iron lung and could only see the ceiling, but wrote poetry about that and asked Frank to record it. On the day he contracted polio, he began to write his poem, On My Last Day on Earth. Sullivan is a surprisingly cheerful fellow, sure that he will recover soon. He does not.

Most of the children find comfort in The Golden Age where they are among fellow sufferers and find Christmas visits home unsettling. Frank's mother Ida visits only occasionally and is never comfortable. We get to know Meyer when one day he impulsively decided to walk to visit his son after work. He ruminates about leaving Europe to be in a safe place.

    It was like this: Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he'd been forced to take as a wife. Only time would tell if one day he wold reach across and take her hand.

And yet, at the end of his visit with his son that night, he says

    Why as he walked away did everything feel different? The velvety dusk, the lights appearing, the penciled clarity of roofs and trees, Softening, the city seemed more grown-up, more itself, with its own mystery and potential. He was starting to see it differently, to look a little more kindly upon it, as if, without knowing, bit by bit it had been taking shape for him.

In the same remarkable way the author describes Meyer's observations, she paints the picture of the care given to the children, the competent, loving staff, and the changes that come to Frank and Elsa's lives as they leave childhood behind. Though the book began with Nazis (aargh) and stirred up my memories and parental empathy for worry, ultimately it was a lovely book with an uplifting end.

After writing this, I mentioned the subject of this book to friends at a gathering and learned how close to home this epidemic hit. Mariflo Stephens told me she had written a piece called Polio Summer for VQR. Be prepared for a powerful story.

Joan London, The Golden Age, Europe Editions, 2016, 224 pages (I read the kindle version). Shortlisted for 2015 Miles Franklin award. Only available through Amazon.

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