This is a collection of sonnets written by Jane Yolen, a well--known children’s book author, during her husband’s 43-day course of radiation therapy for an inoperable brain tumor. In an introductory note, she explains that "each evening after David was safely in bed" she composed a sonnet and "poured (her) feelings onto the page."

Day 1 begins, "Do not go, my love--oh, do not leave so soon . . . " She soon directs her anger at the limitations of technology (Day 4, "The damned machine has broken, cracked . . . ") as David develops side effects of treatment (Day 8, "Sucking candies"; Day 11, "Confusion"). The stakes rise (Day 12, "Today you did not want to eat. / We knew this day would come."), and eventually she succumbs to physical and emotional exhaustion (Day 18, "A friend drove you today, I did not go." and Day 20, "Off you go again, like a toddler to school . . . "). Family gathers; on Day 23 the youngest son arrives to visit his dozing father ("Your eyes flew open, your familiar smile / Told him his coming was worth each mile.")

Later in the course of treatment, the sonnets display the author’s uncertainty about what to believe. Should she listen to the doctor, who on Day 26 brings guardedly optimistic news ("I would not shut the gate quite yet")? Or should she believe what she sees and feels, as she cares for a man who appears to weakening and withering away? The food fights continue: "You who are sixty have just turned six: / You dissemble, deceive, eat half, call it whole." (Day 37) Patient, caretaker, family, and physician all avoid using the word death, even though it "is the one true word that lies within our reach" (Day 38).

In a postscript Jane Yolen reveals that a year after her husband’s "graduation" from radiation therapy he was doing well and, with regard to The Radiation Sonnets, he had promised to "be around for publication day."


These sonnets are straightforward and engaging. Each one invites the reader to experience through the author’s eyes an incident that occurred or observation made on a particular day in the pilgrimage of radiation. In this case the "grace" of the pilgrimage comes from a machine; prayers are answered when this grace overcomes the evil within (cancer), while leaving David Stremple’s tortured soul devastated, but quietly hopeful.

Pilgrimage is a communal activity. Ms. Yolen invites the reader to join in her journey through poems that reach out and communicate well. Pilgrimage is also a highly structured activity that requires self-effacement--you connect with a pre-existing set of beliefs, rather than striking out on your own. Pilgrims follow the rules. Likewise, Ms. Yolen immerses herself in the sonnet; she honors the traditional form, and tailors her voice to "fit," rather than speaking out in more informal or personal ways. Yet these poems are anything but academic. Their emotional content flows directly and is sometimes transcendent.

While these are not great poems individually, the series explores various aspects of the caregiver pilgrimage from a perspective that can be appreciated by students, practitioners, patients, and caregivers. (As of late 2003, David Stremple was alive and happily participating in holiday activities.)


Algonquin Books

Place Published

Chapel Hill, N.C.



Page Count