Bucky Cantor is a young, athletic, Jewish javelin thrower who is acting as a coach for young boys in the sweltering New Jersey summer of 1944. He is ineligible for war service because of his weak eyes.

His coaching efforts are much appreciated by the children and their parents because a polio outbreak is on the rise, and sports help take their minds off their fears of death and permanent illness. One by one, boys fall ill and disappear. Some die. But the games continue in Bucky’s own private campaign against the epidemic.

No one really knows how polio is contracted and spread.

Bucky falls in love with Marcia Steinberg who urges him to leave the city to avoid exposure to the germs. She works at a summer camp in the Poconos far from the city and uses her influence to have him invited to fill a sudden vacancy when the sports instructor is called up to military service. After agonizing over his decision, Bucky accepts the position—admitting that he is running away from fear as much as he is going to Marcia.  He is amazed that no one seems to blame him.

The camp life is idyllic, and he is reconciled to his choice.  But soon one of the boys at camp shows signs of the dreaded illness, and Bucky believes that he must have brought it with him. Then, Bucky himself falls ill and develops a permanent disability that ends his athletic career.

Marcia rushes to his bedside more than willing to continue as his lover and wife, but he sends her away believing that she should not be saddled with a disabled lover. He thinks he did the right thing.


The dutiful, stalwart Bucky wallows in guilt and a sense of retribution. He feels guilty for not serving in the war, and he is tormented by the idea of leaving behind the city boys because his work at the playground is a contribution to the war and their health. Although no evidence supports the transfer of the germ from one direction to another, he flatly (and arrogantly) rejects the possibility that he caught polio from the boy at camp—burdening himself with yet more guilt by insisting that he gave the boy the disease.

Bucky imagines his own illness and disability as just punishment – nemesis—for his many perceived transgressions.  This entrenched attitude means that he believes that he does not have the right to be happy; the conclusion of the book suggests that he never was.

This short novel vividly recreates the painful tensions of polio experienced by families in the pre-vaccine era.  It also shows how diseases take on philosophical meanings well beyond their biological consequences.



Place Published

Toronto, New York, London



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