Sunday, 19 October 2008


SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A LIFE BEYOND POLIO is Gary Presley's account of his life after contracting polio in 1959, when he was a boy of but 17 years. Gary had gone along for the series of injections to prevent polio (many of us had those, or the vaccine on the sugar lump), and a week or so following the final jab, Gary collapsed. He has not been able to walk, and has had to rely on assistance with his breathing, since that time. Over the past 49 years, Gary has rolled along on seven wheelchairs, and presently enjoys the company of Little Red.

Gary Presley worked in insurance sales, and also in commercial radio. He is pretty much self-educated, and did a superb job with it. He is a son, a brother and a husband and father.

Gary has become a writer, and that is how I came to know him. Gary is an administrator of the Internet Writing Workshop. He is a published essayist. With this book release, he is becoming something of a media personality and I had the distinct pleasure of listening to him, over the Internet, speaking on the radio in Iowa. They've got him signing books as well: events, they call them.

In this quite easy to read, if difficult to live, history, Gary Presley uses words that make some of us a little uncomfortable: disabled, handicapped, invalid (and what a word that is, suggesting someone is not "valid"), paralysed, isolated, frightened. Another troubling word that pops up: normalcy. One might think: "Well, that's all about life in seven wheelchairs." Listen: Who among us cannot apply these words, even the terrifying "normalcy", to his or her life?

This is why I particularly enjoyed and benefitted from Gary Presley's account: There are Riding Lessons in Seven Wheelchairs for the likes of me.

It was interesting, and pleasing, to find that Presley's style is, at first, simple, untroubled (and untroubling), and has almost the naivete of a youth about it. The descriptions of falling to the earth, of being slotted into an iron lung, of being fitted for breathing apparatuses, at the age of 17, are fresh. There is no roughness of the man of 65 in it. As the autobiography, for that is what this must be in many ways, progresses, the style and content matures. When Gary finds love the writing really is a serious read, you linger over every line, liking it all so much. You feel he has grown, the book itself, the medium, has been a transport.

The book: Mine has 226 pages, I read it in two days at a leisurely pace. It is printed on pleasant paper, and the University of Iowa Press that published it is committed to preserving natural resources, and that's all worth noting. The book weighs about 420g, so you can figure out how much postage you'll need to send a copy to a friend or family member this coming holiday gifting season, and it shouldn't be onerous. Of course, can do that for you.

Finally, it seems to me that more than a few young people in their mid- to late-teens, say aged 17, could find this book a bit of a primer for life. Parents: Leave a copy on your son's bed.

When I was in my early twenties, I read, for the first time, The Rack by A.E. Ellis, and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Both novels, of course, and dealing with something that even 40 years ago we didn't trouble ourselves over much (tuberculosis). In my case, it was the musings of the characters, the troubled love lives, the frustrations, the breathing lessons, the psychologies, the philosophies, that kept me reading (and eventually re-reading) The Rack and The Magic Mountain.

I don't know whether people can be arsed to read those particular books now, but SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A Life Beyond Polio by Gary Presley deals with things that "other people get, not me" in our lifetime. It's an important book, makes you take stock, look at your feet and the door, and it might give you the push to get a move on.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Ross, for the supportive review. From your reaction and that of others, I do think I've accomplished what I set out to do -- reflect the idea that we're all making this journey together, on foot or on wheels, and a little kindness goes a long way toward making things easier for everyone.


Ruth L.~ said...

I read the book, Ross, and like you got so much out of it . . . things to ponder and things to realize . . . somethings Gary said resonated with me quite apart from the topic at hand. So many universal truths in this.