The Golden Age, Joan London’s novel set in a hospital for children recovering from polio in 1950s Australia, focuses primarily on the Gold family—Ida, Meyer, and their thirteen-year-old son Frank. Immigrants who fled Hungary after World War II, the Golds live through two major traumas: the Holocaust and the childhood scourge of polio, twin struggles for survival that come to mirror and complement each other throughout the novel. Ida and Meyer lost their entire families in the Holocaust and thought they’d finally found safety in Australia; with Frank’s illness, however, their struggle for family survival begins again. While polio presents a frightening parallel to the Holocaust and the threats it posed to the family, Frank eventually conquers his disease and emerges confident in his and his family’s resilience. Ultimately, the family’s experience battling polio, which proves a manageable trauma, helps them process and move past the larger, irreparable griefs they suffered during the war.
Although he was too young to understand or fully remember it, during the war Frank lived in hiding, was separated from his parents, and faced the threat of death many times; at the Golden Age, the children’s hospital where the novel takes place, he again lives among strangers, watching those around him risk death and debilitation while also facing the uncertainty of his own future. The similarities between these events cause Frank to relive and reflect on his experiences as a very young child surviving the Holocaust in Hungary. One of Frank’s strongest memories, for example, is of hiding in the attic of his mother’s piano teacher, Julia; “the effort of lying still in that space, alone, never left him.” This image of enforced and terrified stillness is very similar to Frank’s paralysis after the onset of polio and the difficulty with which all the children on the ward move, creating a parallel between the physical sensations of both experiences.
The connection between immobility imposed by hiding and by polio is especially relevant given Frank’s fascinated friendship with Sullivan, an older boy who lives in an iron lung, having been completely paralyzed by the disease. Later, as Frank watches Warren, a boy he despises, loudly chew candy in the bed next to him, he reflects that “over and over…he and Meyer and Ida had been forced to live within breathing distance of strangers, like animals in a burrow.” Here, he explicitly connects his life as a polio patient with his memories of living in the Jewish ghettos and later in crowded immigrant hostels, making clear that the two experiences are linked in his mind. No longer a young child, however, Frank’s awareness of the world around him has grown since the war, When Sullivan dies from a fever, for example, Frank’s internal horror and distress shows that, although most of his family died during the Holocaust, this is the first time he’s confronting the inability to survive as a more conscious person. Nevertheless, his outward stoicism and maturity are a reminder that his earlier experiences inform who he is now.
The novel’s action takes place while the children are convalescing, having survived the disease’s onset and most dangerous phase. At one point, Elsa, reflecting on the terrifying first days in the Isolation Ward, notes that “after it was over, like a terrible dream, you couldn’t remember much about it. But you were not the same.” Her comment could just as well describe Frank’s memories of his childhood traumas. Like Frank, all the children at the Golden Age have survived something awful without quite understanding it, and like him, their daily efforts to learn to walk and resume normal life are connected to a more primal and basic struggle to survive.
Ida and Meyer thought their arrival in Australia would mark an end to their own grueling struggle to survive. Frank’s illness is devastating because it threatens the destruction of their family yet again and forces them to battle for survival much as they did during the war. Ida and Meyer are the sole members of their families to live through the Holocaust. While they are devastated by their losses, they view Frank’s survival during the war as a miracle. As immigrants in unfamiliar Australian society, they’ve established a tenuous sense of security and peace of mind. Both parents experience Frank’s polio as a renewal of the fear and the constant battle for survival they thought they’d left behind in Europe. Ida especially conflates the two issues; her fears for Frank as a polio patient recall her fears for him during the war. After the onset of the disease, Ida tells Frank fiercely that he must learn to walk again, drawing on the tenacity she developed during the war but also reminding him that “they take the weak ones first,” showing she’s still preoccupied with the dangers they faced during the Holocaust. Later, Ida witness Frank’s depression after his expulsion from the Golden Age. When Frank tells her bleakly that he thinks the birds are telling him “you’re just in the way,” Ida compares her distress to “the time when the tanks rolled in, and you thought, this can’t be happening,” creating another parallel between the threats posed by Frank’s polio and the war.
Ultimately, while polio forces both Frank and his parents to revisit painful memories, because Frank eventually overcomes the disease it becomes a useful mechanism to confront and move past the trauma of the Holocaust. While Ida compares her worries over Frank’s recovery to her feelings at the onset of the war, she springs into action in a way she couldn’t when the tanks rolled in, reuniting Frank with Elsa and shepherding him through his illness.
Speaking in the epilogue as an adult poet, Frank references his two major poems: “The Golden Age,” which is about his time in the polio hospital, and “The Trains,” which shares its name with the chapter in which he recounts his experiences in hiding during the war. He says “The Golden Age” is “the answer to [“The Trains”], the counter to it,” implying that his survival of polio has helped him put to rest the more complicated struggle to survive the Holocaust.
Unlike polio, however, which for Frank proves a conquerable challenge, the scars of the Holocaust will never completely fade. During the concert Ida gives at the hospital, Meyer is proud and happy to watch his wife performing and his son thriving among the other children; to him, it seems as though his family has successfully survived another life-threatening challenge. Still, in the midst of this, Meyer suddenly remembers his younger sister, who was raped and killed by Russian soldiers. A lesser struggle, polio helps the Golds process their experiences during the Holocaust and build fulfilling lives, but it can never give meaning to or erase the traumas of war.
At first it appears that London, by linking Frank’s battle with polio to his experiences during the Holocaust, is trying to illuminate the essential fragility of life and the many cruel challenges humans face in life. However, Frank’s successful recuperation from polio shows his and his family’s exceptional resilience and sends a hopeful message about the immensity of humanity’s will and ability to survive.
Survival Quotes in The Golden Age
The Golden Age […] stood alone, bounded by four flat roads, like an island, which in its present incarnation seemed to symbolize its apartness, a natural quarantine.
The name, inherited, could be considered tactless by some, even cruelly ironic. These children were impaired as no one would ever wish a child to be. But perhaps because of its former role, its solid and generous air, it was a cheerful place.
When at last she’d left the Isolation Ward and her parents were allowed to sit by her bed, they looked smaller to her, aged by the terror they had suffered, old, shrunken, ill-at-ease. Something had happened to her which she didn’t yet understand. As if she’d gone away and come back distant from everybody.
Why do I refuse it? he thought, wheeling off. His parents, he knew, regarded his lost legs as one more tragedy they had to bear. I refuse to be their only light. I want to be my own reason for living.
Talent was not enough, Julia used to say, you must find the grip, the hunger, the small, determined child inside you. You must have a certain ruthlessness to win, as if by right. In the hierarchy of talent, you are a born aristocrat […]
It was the beginning of himself. Up until then he hadn’t really felt sad or frightened, his mother had done that for him. As long as she was there, he didn’t have to fear. He was part of her, and like a mother cat she had attended to every part of him.
He’d learnt, like all children in those times, to do as he was told. To stay quiet could be a matter of life or death. But the effort of lying still in that space, alone, never left him.
Sometimes his parents forgot themselves over drinks with Hungarian friends and spoke of the country they once knew […] then they fell silent. They’d been guests, after all, in that country. As they were guests in this one.
Over and over again, Frank thought, he, Meyer and Ida had been forced to live within breathing distance of strangers, like animals in a burrow. Knowing about their underclothes, the smells and habits of their bodies. The little meannesses, the same old jokes, the sulks and temper flurries […]
Watching her play, Frank was moved. He saw her strength, her vast determination. He remembered her fury when he was in the hospital. “You are going to get strong! You are going to walk […] you want to know why? They take the weak ones first.”
Ida stood still. It felt like the time when the tanks rolled in, and you thought, This can’t be happening. Everything becomes provisional. She walked straight out of the house to the phone box on the corner and rang Margaret Briggs.