Scholastic, 2022 (My New Zealand Story)
“Being in quarantine sounds like being in prison,” I said, shivering. Lily nodded. “A bit like that. Except that the prison is your own home.”
It might sound familiar today, but this is New Zealand in 1936-37. 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. But it’s the strength of some people closer to home that provide his biggest inspiration.
Enemy at the Gate was first published by Scholastic in 2008 and shortlisted for the NZ Post Children’s Book awards. Now in 2022, after two years of covid, it is being re-released with a new title and striking new cover under the My New Zealand Story banner. For today’s young readers, quarantine is no longer a concept from history; it has become part of their lived experience.
The story behind the book
One of the questions I often get asked about my books is: Where did you get the idea from? Sometimes that’s hard to answer. Ideas can swirl around in your head and gradually attract other ideas, slowly coalescing until you start to see the glimmer of a plot. But I can remember clearly where, or who, the idea for this book came from. My father-in-law, Peter Werry, used to tell the story of how he and his family once went to stay on a farm in Waikononi, in the Peel Forest. There was a polio epidemic and his parents thought the isolated farm was the safest place to keep him and his brother safe. Back then, 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.
When I was writing this book, it felt as if those events had happened a long time ago. But the arrival of Covid-19 seemed to bring that history into today’s world. Just as in 1937, schools closed, families stayed home, parents worried about how best to protect their children. All these things began to seem eerily familiar.
Many people have shared with me their own stories of polio as it affected them, or members of their family or community. These stories are still out there among people who grew up before the polio vaccine was developed and first given out. You might know people who can tell you their own stories of how polio outbreaks affected them. It’s an important part of New Zealand’s history that we shouldn’t ever forget.
“Well?” Mum asked again, buttoning up Jessie’s cardigan instead of answering Lily. “Is there any more news about the abdication?”
But this time Dad didn’t answer. He was reading something else. He looked up and his eyes met Mum’s.
“What is it?” Mum said quickly. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing,” Dad said. But Flo had darted back again and was looking at the headline on the page he was reading.
“Concern at Dunedin,” she read out. “Outbreak of in-fant-ile para …para … Five cases reported. What’s infantile para – par-aly-sis?”
Neither Mum nor Dad replied. Mum stood up and straightened her apron.
“Isn’t it that—” Lily started.
“Lily!” Mum said sharply. “We’ll talk about it later.”
Here are just a few of the stories that people have shared with me about their memories of polio:
- “I was only five in 1936 but still remember the terrible anxiety that surrounded us kids – only to be replaced a couple of years later by anxiety about the war and possible Japanese invasions of New Zealand.”
- “A neighbour had three children and a crippled leg post-polio. She had coped with the girls, but used to tie the two-year-old boy to the clothes line because he was lively and she couldn’t run after him.”
- “I can still see the colour of the little envelopes that we sent our lessons back in and the size. They were quite large, thick almost cardboard and greenish.”
- “When I was seven or eight, I was knocked down by a bus and spent eight months in hospital. This was in about 1938. The children’s hospital was in a U-shape; I was on one side, with the polio children on the other side, and a courtyard in the middle. On fine days, the nurses would wheel the children out into the courtyard. But us children on one side and the polio children on the other side used to have fights – throwing things at each other and so on – so after a while, the nurses stopped putting us out there at the same time.”
- “I came out to NZ in 1947. The woman I was staying with had five children, and schools were closed with the polio epidemic, so I used to sit in the kitchen and help the children with their Correspondence School lessons while their mother did the housework.”
- “I went to school with a girl who had polio in the fifties. She was always very thin, had legs like match sticks and hobbled along.”
- “I nursed iron lung patients in New Plymouth hospital. It was very hard nursing because any little movement (even talking and the resulting soundwaves) sent their whole body into spasms. You could hardly touch them, or only very gently, and many didn’t come out of it. They were too sick to notice anything going on around them.”
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.
“This portrait of a family life during the depression is a highlight as is the school life of Tom and his friends… Terrific writing from Philippa Werry who knows her history and never disappoints.”
Thanks to Bobs Books Blog for this review.
Teachers notes for Quarantine will soon be available.