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In the summer of 1950, 11-year-old Susan Richards Shreve traveled from her home in Washington, D.C., to a rural haven in Georgia, where water play, group sing-a-longs, and coed hijinks reigned.

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Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve, hardcover, 224 pages
It sounds like summer camp, but Warm Springs was in fact a retreat with a mission: to heal the spirits and bodies of Americans who'd been afflicted with polio before the Salk vaccine was developed in 1954. Shreve, who's the author of 13 novels, has written an engrossing, somewhat offbeat memoir called Warm Springs, about the period, between ages 11 and 13, that she spent at the famous sanitarium, where she seems to have been the reigning mistress of misrule. In an anecdote that encapsulates the dopiness and high drama of adolescence as well as the developing Shreve's outrageous personality, she recalls steering herself in her wheelchair into the boys' ward, where the charismatic Joey Buckley was lying in his bed, recovering from surgery. Shreve writes: "I cannot for the life of me understand now how I had the nerve or stupidity or exhibitionism to wear a sanitary [napkin] belt around my neck, in full view of nurses and doctors and eighteen adolescents .... It occurs to me now, considerably more embarrassed for myself in reflection than I was then, that the gesture was an announcement of desire." Shreve's voice throughout this memoir is wry and sometimes wistful when reflecting on the extraordinary world of the sanitarium. (Read an excerpt.) She smoothly navigates between pity-repelling personal recollections and an encapsulated cultural history of polio in the U.S., particularly during late 1940s and early '50s, when "the power of positive thinking" prevailed as a national credo. Throughout Warm Springs, she also pays homage to its founder, FDR, the country's most famous "polio" as those who had had the disease were then called. Roosevelt's hard- won belief in the benefits of what we would now call "holistic treatment" governed Warm Springs, and his jaunty spirit was everywhere — especially strong, Shreve recalls, in the dining hall, where a chair at the head table was always left vacant.

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