BookBrowse Reviews Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve

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Warm Springs

Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven

by Susan Richards Shreve

Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve X
Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2008, 240 pages

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A rich and moving memoir of childhood illness and its aftermath by a member of the last generation of Americans to have experienced childhood polio

Shreve, who contracted polio when she was a year-old, spent the first 11 years of her life trying to fit into "normal" life, walking with a brace and failing deportment classes at the local elementary school. So she was thrilled to arrive at a place where crippled children were considered ordinary - only to find herself insufficiently debilitated to be considered normal there either!

For many decades after Shreve's father collected her from Warm Springs, having been ask to remove his 13-year-old daughter with immediate effect as she was a "danger" to the other children, Shreve never thought to look back on her time at the center. This changed a few years ago when she and her husband struck up a conversation with two scientists who were examining the relationship between the AIDS and polio viruses. It struck Shreve that both diseases carried a moral stain - in the case of AIDS the shame is sexual, with polio it was social, based on the false belief that the virus struck only the filthy houses of the urban poor.

This conversation triggered her to begin a circuitous route back to the years she had spent at Warm Springs and the downhill wheelchair race that she had instigated between her and her first love, Joey Buckley, that had caused her to be removed "pronto" from the establishment.

She read about the history of polio and FDR's contribution to Warm Springs and the irradiation of polio. She read about the "silent generation" of the 1950s and thought about the shame of illness and the character-defining frustration of a child locked in a paralyzed body who feels responsible for changing the family's daily life. As she thought all this she remembered the fateful race with Joey and began to think, "What it had meant to live in a village of cripples, to travel the distance between childhood and adulthood for that short time by myself discovering the lure of religion and romantic movies and the danger of sexuality lurking in the embryo of adolescence".

The result is Warm Springs. Shreve spins a delicate web of memoir in which polio takes a back seat to a powerful coming of age story in which a 13-year-old girl trapped in a body inadequate for her ambitious energies hits adolescent rebellion at full speed, experiences her first crush, undergoes surgeries and rehabilitation and tries terribly hard to become the "good girl" people want her to be. It is a riveting, raw, miscellany of memories from a bygone era that seems much longer ago than it is - a snapshot of a time and place, and the challenge of living with pain, guilt and loneliness.

The History of Warm Springs & Franklin D Roosevelt
In 1924, FDR (who contracted polio in 1921) received a letter from a friend of his, George Foster Peabody, informing him that a young polio sufferer seemed to have recovered his ability to walk by swimming in the buoyant waters of a Georgia resort called Warm Springs. Peabody, a wealthy banker and co-owner of the resort, suggested that FDR should visit, which he did shortly after. Roosevelt was delighted by the warmth and buoyancy of the pool which supported his weight and enabled him to stand and practice walking. In 1926, FDR announced that he had decided to buy Warm Springs and turn it into a center for the hydrotherapeutic treatment of polio victims. He invested nearly $200,000 in the foundation (roughly 2/3rds of his private fortune) and for two years served as its director and unofficial physiotherapist. To the growing numbers of patients that began to arrive at the center, he became the affable and sympathetic "Dr. Roosevelt"—a role in which he took great pleasure.

In 1928 he was persuaded to run for governor of New York. Initially reluctant to leave the rewarding work at Warm Springs he was eventually persuaded to enter the race and was elected. Four years later, in 1932, he was elected President - the first of four terms he would serve. As World War II drew to a close his health deteriorated. On April 12, 1945 he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs.

The center still exists as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. Its mission is to empower individuals with disabilities to achieve personal independence.

This review was originally published in July 2007, and has been updated for the June 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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