I highly recommend this short book by Philip Roth. It is a moving story about polio, in particular the fear and emotion of those around the disease, rather than about those with it. It leaves me very grateful we now have a vaccine for this terrible disease!
The book is set in a Jewish district of New York in 1944, where Roth himself grew up and would have been 11 years old at the time. We follow Bucky Cantor, a 23 year old who is a gym teacher and working as playground instructor for the summer, when there is a serious polio outbreak. The book mostly follows him for that summer, as he teaches and looks out for the children around him, but the final section meets him again about 30 years later, looking back on events.
Bucky struggles to understand how God could allow this disease, which particularly kills the children. At the same time as thinking about polio, he is thinking about his friends who are in the army, fighting in Europe, who he can’t join because of his bad eye-sight; and also about his own family, where his mother died in childbirth and his father was a criminal, who he has never met.
He has been brought up with a strong sense of duty, and so is also challenged trying to understand his duty to the children, given this polio outbreak. His grandfather had brought him up to respect his duty and to be tough, so he wants to be in the army, and feels like that is where he belongs, and so struggles with being left behind.
As well as exploring all of Bucky’s emotions we also see the impact of polio on the community and how different people react. Not knowing the cause of the disease they lash out at different people and places. The book makes it easy to imagine how you would react in that situation and how life would be.