In a flashback Frank recalls his time at the IDB; it’s a big hospital in the middle of Perth, much larger than the Golden Age. Most of the patients are young adults with a penchant for dark humor; young and precocious, Frank quickly becomes a favorite and roams the wards in his wheelchair, carrying messages and helping set up pranks on the nurses. He’s unsupervised and no one makes him go to school; in this sense, the hospital reminds him of the refugee hostel where he and his parents stayed in Vienna, where they were “saved, but not yet back into real life.”
Frank’s ability to thrive in an adult hospital shows how much more precocious (if not truly more mature) he is than most children. His comparison of the hospital to the refugee camp shows the extent to which the two major traumas in his life are linked; his surprising contentedness in both situations shows that he’s used to facing challenges to his survival.
Exploring the hospital one day, Frank stumbles on a room filled with “iron lungs,” breathing machines that keep completely paralyzed polio patients alive. Remembering his own experiences in confinement, he flees, but returns the next day and sees that one of the patients is a teenage boy. The boy tells Frank he’s composing a poem about the ceiling, called “The Snowfield,” and a recites a couple lines. He introduces himself as Sullivan Backhouse and approves of Frank’s name, which he says is “apposite.” Frank doesn’t understand what this means.
Frank’s very uneasy at the thought of being immobile; this reflects his experiences during the war, which he’ll describe later, and it makes his confinement to a wheelchair even more poignant. However, it’s important that Frank’s introduction to his vocation, which will free and expand his mind, takes place in a location defined by physical confinement and disability.
Frank returns to the ward every day, disregarding formal visiting hours, and the two boys discuss poetry. Sullivan informs him that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme or be about heroes. He especially admires the First World War poets, who didn’t glorify the war but wrote about everyday experiences, even about being in the hospital. Frank likes this approach to art because it’s different from Ida’s “theatrical [and] deliberate” reverence for music, which he feels sets his family apart from other Australians.
Even though Frank’s strong sense of artistic vocation ties him to his mother, he also uses it to set himself apart from her and the European culture he’s inherited but no longer cares for. For Frank, fitting into his new society seems more important, and is often in conflict with, embracing his parents’ values.
Before polio, Sullivan was a popular prefect and captain of the rowing team at a boy’s college. He has many siblings and a big house by the river. Frank associates Sullivan with a grand house he once saw, and with the wholesomeness and serenity of old paintings.
Sullivan’s affluent background marks him as different from Frank, but their shared status as polio patients makes clear that no matter how secure or established one feels, threats to survival can present themselves at any time.
A dignified man with an important government job, Sullivan’s father, Mr. Backhouse, often visits. He’s kind to Frank and asks him how he likes Australia, but Frank sees it’s an effort for him to concentrate on anything but Sullivan. It’s also hard for him to see mobile children in wheelchairs while his son is completely paralyzed.
Mr. Backhouses’s intense focus on his son is one of many examples of intense parental devotion to their children. It’s notable that Frank picks up on this and is able to infer his jealousy of Frank’s comparative good health; here, Frank seems very astute at reading the thoughts and feelings of adults.
Frank notices that Sullivan always has a joke or story ready for these visits; he’s cheerfully taken on the responsibility of keeping up his father’s spirits. On the other hand, Frank deeply resents the responsibility of making his parents happy. He knows how upset they are at having to bear another tragedy after escaping from Hungary, but he doesn’t want to be “their only light.”
Frank distances himself from his parents partly in order to forget the traumas they’ve endured together, and partly to protect himself from their current fear and anxiety. For Frank, the best way to get over the war is to pretend it didn’t happen. He also rejects the pressure of being responsible for the happiness of adults who are supposed to care for him.
Another day, Sullivan muses to Frank that real life only happens when one is alone. He references a woman named Sister Addie, a nurse at the Golden Age, commenting that “all her thoughts are for others,” but that he wonders what her thoughts are like when she’s in her own room, without her uniform. Most of the time, Sullivan is cheerful when Frank visits, but sometimes he sits in silence while he’s composing a poem or after he’s had a bad night. Frank often transcribes Sullivan’s poetry for him.
Like Frank, Sullivan has a fascinated respect for solitude; he takes advantage of his lonely room to write poetry and analyzes its role in the lives of others like Sister Addie. However, sometimes he’s understandably overwhelmed by the isolation of life in the iron lung. His vacillation is an early illustration of the novel’s tension between positive solitude and negative isolation.
Eventually, Sullivan gets to spend some time each day out of the lung. He and Frank sit on the verandah strapped to recliners. Sullivan tells Frank his onset story. He was in an important rowing race but felt so hot and sick he dived into the river and suddenly realized he couldn’t move his legs. His teammates had to drag him out of the water. Even though it was terrifying, Sullivan looks back on the day with a sort of fondness, since he loved school and was very close to his friends. While they ferried him to shore, the beginning of a long poem called “On My Last Day on Earth” occurred to him. Everything he writes now is part of that poem.
Onset stories are important for all the children, since they mark the abrupt end of conventional childhood and the beginning of a host of physical and mental challenges. With its lyrical and aesthetic appeal, Sullivan’s story can be read as more compelling than others. The novel will make clear, however, that no matter how prosaic, all the children’s stories are equally valuable, and have equal potential to translate into poetry.
Sullivan’s dramatic story makes Frank ashamed of his own onset, which he feels emblematizes the “loud, raw, over-intimate tragicomedy” of his own family. He refused to go to school because of a terrible headache, then fought with Ida who said she would lose her new job if she stayed home to take care of him. When Ida finally realized how feverish Frank was, she ran down the street to the phone box yelling and cursing. Meyer had to carry him out of the house while the neighbors watched. In the midst of all this, Frank thought savagely that this would teach his parents not to depend on him for happiness.
When Sullivan says that modern poetry doesn’t have to be heroic, and that his favorite poets write about prosaic experiences like being in the hospital, Frank is entranced. Still, he wishes his family background and even his onset story were a little more heroic, more like Sullivan’s. Frank hasn’t learned to apply his new views on art to his own life yet.
One night during his stay in IDB, Frank wakes up to thunder and lightning. He realizes the power is out and worries about the iron lungs, which run on electricity. He wheels to the door and sits anxiously in the rain; suddenly, he sees the nurses running in pajamas to the iron lung ward and knows everything will be alright. The next morning, he finds out they hand-pumped the lungs for hours.
Even as Frank believes his own life lacks in heroics, he’s surrounded by nurses who devote their lives to keeping polio patients alive. In the midst of Frank’s discovery of his artistic vocation, this vignette shows that the novel valorizes all work that’s done well, from poetry to caregiving.
Sullivan says Mr. Backhouse wants to publish the rhyming poems that he wrote before polio. Sullivan wants to call the collection “On My Last Day on Earth,” but his father disapproves of this title. He tells Frank he’s working on a new poem, one line of which is “in the end, we are all orphans.”
While Sullivan’s poetry is growing more complex as a result of his experience with polio, his well-meaning father wants to sanitize his work for the benefit of his family and friends. There’s a tension between Sullivan’s desire to be recognized as a mature young man and his father’s wish that he remain a child.
The next day, Sister Addie tells Frank that Sullivan spiked a fever during the night and died suddenly. His iron lung is already missing, taken away for cleaning. Frank encounters the devastated Mr. Backhouse and is impressed by his dignified, understated grief. Even though most of Frank’s family were murdered during the war, this is the first loss he’s experienced more personally.
For the first time, Frank experiences the grief and loss he was too young to feel during the war. Throughout the novel, the challenges Frank faces as a polio patient will help him confront his early childhood in the war, which he’s never been able to fully process.
Frank looks at Sullivan’s poetry, which he’s transcribed on a prescription pad. He knows it’s up to him to finish “On My Last Day on Earth.” He calls Meyer and tries to tell him this but can’t communicate his thoughts well. After hanging up, he lies down in bed, looking up at the ceiling as if he is dead as well.
The title of the poem is important. Sullivan was far from a pessimist, despite his dire condition; he didn’t mean that he already considered himself dead, but rather emphasized how radically polio transforms its victims. Unlike Mr. Backhouse, Frank understands what Sullivan was trying to say but hasn’t lived with the disease long enough to truly articulate his feelings about it.