Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chasing Orion

Lasky, Kathryn. Chasing Orion
Candlewick Press 2010 362 17.99
978-0-7636-3982-2 hs Historical VG-BN
The polio epidemic sweeping through Indiana in the summer of 1952 takes on a human face for 11-year-old Georgie, when when she moves next door to Phyllis, a teen polio victim.
Author Kathryn Lasky was prompted to write Chasing Orion, by her own childhood experiences growing up in the 1950s. As a child Lasky read newspaper stories about polio cases, then checked herself obsessively for symptoms, and then – due to the hot Indiana summers – begged to go swimming, since “it was so hard to imagine that I might actually die from it.”

In Chasing Orion, 11-year-old Georgie becomes obsessed with the 1952 polio epidemic spreading rapidly across her home state of Indiana as the result of a school report she wrote on the topic. She keeps a scrapbook of polio statistics, symptoms, and newspaper articles. Georgie never dreams she will come as close to polio as she does when she meets her new neighbor, Phyllis, who is encased in an iron lung. Phyllis had been a glamorous, popular cheerleader before polio immobilized her in a “coffin with legs.”

“I have eighty-seven cubic centimeters of air, but you have the world,” observes Phyllis. But although Phyllis’ breathing and mobility are limited, her ability to manipulate her family and friends is not. Phyllis deliberately and delicately weaves a web of lies which ensnare Georgie’s brother Emmett, Phyllis’ new sweetheart. While others view Phyllis as a helpless victim to be pitied, only Georgie sees the great danger she poses to Emmett. Georgie struggles to save Emmett from Phyllis’ plot before he is hurt and derails his own promising future.

The characters are compelling. Georgie is a believable 11-year-old. She is not precocious; she is down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. She mopes because her family moved to the other end of town and she feels bored and isolated. She is upset about starting a new school. This is Georgie’s coming-of-age story. Phyllis has a teen’s idyllic life: popularity, looks, talent, a cute boyfriend, and convertible of her own. She leads a charmed life. All of this is stripped from her by a devastating disease and she finds herself grappling with issues adults do not want to face.

However, this is not an easy book to read. The deliberate pace and dense language obscure the plot and may turn casual readers away. In pursuing Georgie’s inner dialogue, readers are taken on interesting, but irrelevant, tangents. When the climax comes, less than ten pages from the end, the denouement happens so quickly that it glosses over Phyllis’ intent to have Emmett assist in euthanizing her. In the end, “natural” causes end Phyllis’ life.

In telling the story of Phyllis, Georgie, and Emmett, Lasky touches on several deeper themes: What constitutes living? Why do bad things happen to good people? Do people have the right to decide when they will die? The book serves as a natural springboard to discussions about polio and other contagious diseases, those that are still a threat, and those – like polio – which have (nearly) been eradicated. Chasing Orion may fill gaps in many library collections, as it is a snapshot in time of a decade and disease that rarely flesh out the pages of history books.
Historical fiction provides a sideways approach to a part of history that is generally not addressed by history textbooks: the polio epidemics of the 1950s. Welliver, Hilary
Poliomyelitis - Fiction

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