Joan London’s The Golden Age is a quiet novel about a frightening time in the 1950s when, instead of fun and freedom, summer came to mean fear and isolation as pools were closed and children kept inside the house in the hopes of avoiding the dreaded polio. The Golden Age is a convalescent home in Australia where children who have been stricken with the disease are sent to recuperate. At twelve, Frank and Elsa are two of the oldest children at the home and so, become friends out of necessity and loneliness.
Loneliness and isolation are the overriding themes in the Golden Age and not just in relation to the children. While Frank and Elsa are the focus of the novel, London also acknowledges the toll taken on the parents of children stricken with polio. Even after the extended periods of quarantine, the recovery homes had very limited visiting hours. For Frank’s parents, Ida and Meyer, this separation from their only child was a painful reminder of their recent history before moving to Australia. As Hungarian Jews, Meyer was sent to a work camp in the Ukraine and Ida, a gifted pianist whose career ended when the Nazis invaded, had to leave Frank in hiding while she used a stolen identity to work as a Christian housekeeper. For Meyer,He had a suspicion that never again would he feel at home as he once had. Never again on this earth. And another suspicion: that to love a place, to imagine yourself belonging to it, was a lie, a fiction. It was a vanity. Especially for a Jew.
Frank may not feel the separateness his father does, but as he becomes closer to Elsa he realizes that her sunny protected life in Australia gives her no frame of reference for what he has lived through.
… she didn’t understand why the little boy Frank had had to hide. She didn’t know what a disaster of Biblical proportions had occurred while she was a tiny girl growing up in Swanbourne. Not that ordinary people, neighbors, could kill each other.
Even knowing this, Elsa is the only person Frank wants to be around. He has been in love with her since she first arrived and their friendship grows as they push each other to heal. It is their relationship that provides the light in The Golden Age even if it is tempered by the effects of polio because there is no youthful exuberance or freedom of movement. Every day is a struggle just to regain strength and mobility and there is no guarantee that they will return.
He moved like an old man. Everyday living took longer than it used to, dressing, walking, making his bed. His mind had to plot out how to do it all. It made him tired. Something felt ripped out of him: his youth, his strength, his heart.
Reading The Golden Age provides a painful education in a subject most of us know little about. London captures the many emotions evoked by polio from the intense fear in avoiding it to the despair when a child is diagnosed and the grinding down of hope when it becomes certain there will be lasting effects. Where the novel becomes unforgettable is in the other emotions that flow through and around her characters. At its most basic level love and loneliness duel on almost every page. The Golden Age may take place in one location during one summer, but what London creates with that is an unforgettable novel with characters whose lives expand far beyond that time and place.