Pipi Press, 2020
A deadly disease is sweeping the world and nobody knows how to stop it. Movie theatres and swimming pools are shut and schools are closed. People are discouraged from gathering in large groups at the beach. Twelve-year-old Tom Mitchell can’t even see his best friend Charlie. He wonders when the lockdown is ever going to end.
And then things get worse.
It might all sound familiar. But this is New Zealand in 1937-38. The disease is infantile paralysis, or polio, and nobody knows where it will strike next. When even the adults are afraid, Tom finds refuge in his dream – to run in the Olympics like his hero, Olympic champion Jack Lovelock.
Enemy at the Gate was first published by Scholastic in 2008 and shortlisted for the NZ Post Children’s Book awards. It feels especially apt to be re-releasing it in 2020 for a new generation of readers who understand the concepts of quarantine and epidemics as part of their lived reality. The story of the polio epidemic is a fascinating one, little known to younger audiences, but many older New Zealanders will have their own stories to tell of friends, neighbours or family, or even themselves, affected by this dreaded disease.
The story behind the book
The initial idea for Enemy at the Gate came from my husband’s father, Peter Werry. As a child, he lived with his family in Ashburton, where his father was a teacher. When polio broke out, his parents decided that the safest place for Peter and his brother John was with relatives who had a sheep station at Waikononi, two hours’ drive away in the Peel Forest.
Even today, the Peel Forest is quite isolated. Back then, it must have been even more so. Peter and John and their mother stayed on the farm, while their father went back to work, but they didn’t stay in the farmhouse. They spent three months camping in a tent in a field, not seeing anybody except their relatives and one other family who came with them.
I think the boys had lots of fun. I don’t know how much their mother enjoyed sleeping in a tent and cooking over a primus for three months, but she must have thought it was worth it. In those days, no one knew what caused polio, or how to avoid catching it. There was no cure and parents were terrified that their children would end up sick, paralysed or at worst dead.
One night I woke up, hot and sweaty, with my heart thumping, and feeling so dizzy that I had to hang onto the edge of the bed. The moonlight was streaming through the window and I could hear Johnny’s snorting breaths and feel his toes in my stomach.
Was this how it felt when you were coming down with infantile paralysis? I tried to remember that list of symptoms. Weren’t dizziness and fever part of it? Was this how it was going to be? Not Johnny, who was never very strong. Not Jessie, who was the youngest. The invisible enemy was going to creep in and attack me.
I was so scared I couldn’t get back to sleep for ages. I lay there in the moonlit dark, wiggling my hands and feet and ankles, to make sure that everything still worked properly. Was this it? I would be taken off to hospital. I would never run again, let alone run as fast as Jack Lovelock. I would never get to the Olympics. I might never even walk again.
Yes, I would. I would make myself get better. Everyone would be talking about me, the boy hero who refused to give up and made a miraculous recovery. I’d be in all the papers. Doctors would come from all around the world to find out how I’d beaten the dread disease.
Or perhaps I wouldn’t. I would lie there in hospital for weeks, months, years. All my family would come and visit. Flo and Lily would stand by my bed, sobbing, while the nurses told them how brave I was.
The next thing I knew, it was morning and sunlight was streaming in instead. I tested my fingers and toes again. Everything still worked.
It was all right. I was still safe. We were still all safe.
Here’s a blog post about this book, and what unexpectedly happened after it was first published
These two newspaper articles from December 1936 and April 1937 show the alarm felt as polio spread across the country. It’s easy to see the parallels with the covid19 outbreak and daily reporting of figures.
“As a compare and contrast, this would be a fascinating book for a school to buy for a class to study. There have been many times in our past that our movements have been restricted in the name of public health, and COVID-19 was just one of them. Here’s hoping there won’t be many more.”
Thanks to the wonderful Sapling website for this review.
“Philippa Werry’s Enemy at the Gate describes a world where children are stuck at home for weeks on end, with an invisible enemy taking down those around them. The great unknown of what is to come causes panic throughout the country. It sounds familiar as we all remember the anxiety-inducing lockdown we experienced earlier this year. But we had the advantage of scientists from around the world developing a vaccine and researching the virus to find the information needed to effectively stop the spread.”
Thanks to Caitlyn Wickham for this review on Hooked on Books.
You can find teachers notes for Enemy at the Gate here.