CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 29 . . . . April 1, 2011
Cruelty, it seems, is part of growing up. In spite of earnest efforts to curb bullying, many girls have both tormented others and been victims themselves. Too often, this behaviour results from ignorant prejudice and fear of the unknown. Girls who are different become easy targets for opportunistic bullies.
Noreen Robertson is an unexceptional 11-year-old girl--popular at school and concerned about fitting in--when she is struck with polio, a terrifyingly contagious disease that sometimes results in paralysis. In 1937, the disease was rampant, and a vaccine for it had not yet been created. Isolated at first by quarantine, then by the ignorance of her community, Noreen confides her fears in her diary. With inspiration from her brave heroine, Amelia Earhart, and her open-minded grandfather, Noreen negotiates the seething waters of her illness and consequent disability. Although prejudice strains her friendships and Noreen is wounded by the insensitive reactions of those around her, she emerges from her ordeal a stronger and more compassionate person.
The story takes place in the scorching summer of 1937. Although normally Noreen and her friends would escape the Saskatoon heat at the local pool, fear of the raging polio epidemic and her middle-class family's straitened financial situation make even this simple relief off-limits. Noreen and Bessie, her best friend, amuse themselves taking risks that would make their mothers cringe and by tormenting Ann Lute, an impoverished classmate who is a recent immigrant from Poland. Not long after her twelfth birthday, Noreen collapses getting out of bed. At the hospital, she is diagnosed with polio. Even when Noreen's quarantine is lifted, members of her extended family, school friends, and even Bessie refuse to come near Noreen, scared of the disease that left her legs paralyzed. Fortunately for Noreen, her loyal, worldly grandfather guides her from the medical conservatism of her small town to Regina and the most advanced polio treatment available in Saskatchewan at the time.
In To Stand On My Own, Barbara Haworth-Attard gracefully handles the issues of the day, presenting them in a way that is easy to understand and relate to. In many ways, the problems of 1937 are today's problems, as families grapple with the challenges of the economic downturn and children with disabilities continue to face the ignorance of their able-bodied peers. As Noreen's friendship with Ann Lute develops, Haworth-Attard subtly demonstrates degrees of poverty and the role privilege plays in perpetuating ignorance. She also questions the fears surrounding medical research, showing how ignorance of disease, its causes and its prevention, perpetuates problems.
To Stand On My Own is a heartbreaking, hopeful tale of courage in the face of frightening odds. Noreen's voice is strong and authentic, revealing the fears and hopes of a typical 12-year-old girl. Attard's attention to detail creates a rich and believable portrait of life in 1937. Her prose is layered, revealing not only the emotional trials and tribulations of childhood illness, but the deeper cultural and class tensions of the era. She handles the delicate issues of bullying, prejudice, disability, and changing friendships sensitively, inspiring reflection and compassion. While the story portrays an historical period well and will appeal to historical fiction fans for this reason, it could also lead to productive discussions of prejudice, disability, immigration, poverty, and privilege.
Meredith Snyder is an English teacher in Fredericton, NB.
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