Colin Harrington: 'Polio Boulevard' memoir resonates for all

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WINDSOR >> Berkshire poet and writer Karen Chase has just published a moving and inspiring memoir about her having contracted polio when she was a child and her long recovery therapies that stretched well into her teen years. This memoir, "Polio Boulevard," from SUNY Press, is a personal and at the same time important historical account of survival, what it was like for her and for the many others involved.

Her experience is detailed with unsparing accuracy, great artistry, in bright prose vignettes, and most of all, with a deep compassion in all the varied stories, including references to the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with whom Ms. Chase has an abiding bond. But at its heart, this memoir is about a singularly focused girl, experiencing her young life through her own private adversity while at the same time embracing her story with an uncanny bravery and pluck, seeing everything with a kind of pure joy that seems to come from her candid, forthright style, and her unabashed observations of all that happens to her. It is in many ways a touching love story for all the events of a life, events that we never dreamed would happen and that we will never forget.

Mythical gods made real

This memoir is very much about living at the heart and the bone of being. When I teach "The Odyssey" to ninth graders, I engage them in this epic story by telling them that each one of us is a hero, a hero in our own story, and in the lives of many others. Like Odysseus, we are distinct and yet we are epic in our existence.

Most of all, and what may have troubled Odysseus the most, is that we are at the mercy of the gods, who may be helping us or making us suffer. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology and mythical archetypes, devised an archetype of the Hero Cycle that in essence is the recognition of three stages of adventure: departure from home (sometimes the "comfort zone," trials and initiation in the world, and the return to home, changed yet wise enough to tell the others about what happened.

This is how I see "Polio Boulevard." There are mythical gods, too, such as Jonas Salk who invented the cure for polio, too late for Karen, and there is FDR, who leads the way for all those who had been afflicted, just like him, and faced the hero's adventure full circle.

Karen Chase talks about the nature of history in her memoir, intertwined stories of the "small me," connected in every way to greater figures, in this case FDR. There is little to separate the great man and the little girl. The same thing happened to them both from out of thin air. She describes history as "braid like," blending the here and now with the greater world and the greater numbers in the world.

We are all part of the history of now and even so, we have our own, individual story. Karen Chase and FDR and all those she describes in her memoir who survived, were disabled, or who died, were the history of polio before Salk came up with a vaccine that has made our new history polio free.

Appreciation of life

The memoir is above all a personal story where polio was dominant but more it was Karen's story of childhood and early teens. It is about Karen and her unique life. In that way the memoir gave me a peaceful and compassionate sense of the message to appreciate my own history, all the particulars, the embarrassing, the pain, and all the great joys of just really being myself, who I am, what has happened to me, and how I have managed.

The memoir is an awakening to where our mind goes when illness or adversity or wonderful blessings embrace all the wonders of living. It is a memoir of great intensity and at times great tenderness and clarity about those she remembers through it all.

At one point she tells the story of a dying man in his 90s with such artistry the deep relationship is entirely real in our minds as it was in hers but that is totally imagined when having read an obituary as she experiences the grief at the death of a real friend. The grief is in a sense honored and felt most deeply in being transferred to another and I totally got that. One person's story is as easily another's and that is the definition of compassion, and it is the gift of "Polio Boulevard."

Karen Chase will be appearing at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park, N.Y. Thursday at 7 p.m. for a book talk and a signing event.

Colin Harrington, a writer and educator living in Windsor, is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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