June Opie was twenty-one when she contracted polio on her way to England from New Zealand in 1947. She spent two years in a London hospital, where she initially had no friends or family. Against terrible odds, June recovered from full-body paralysis and learned to walk again, albeit on crutches and with both legs in callipers. Her autobiography, Over My Dead Body, was published in 1957. It became an international best-seller in just ten days.
Opie wrote Over My Dead Body after her return to New Zealand as a thank you to the St Mary’s Hospital staff and her friends in London. She chose a publisher at random by picking a book off her bookshelf. The publisher she happened to choose was Pan Books, famous for publishing cheap paperbacks with bright covers. Pan paperbacks usually had racy or sordid themes: sex, violence, aliens, horror, and murder mysteries. It seems strange that a fairly conservative young New Zealand woman’s story of surviving polio in the 1950s could fit into the Pan paperback collection. To Opie’s surprise, not only was the book published, it was a huge success.
The paperback cover depicted a beautiful young woman’s head sticking out of a monstrous contraption. The illustration is futuristic, mysterious, and alluring. Later editions showed her with peroxide blonde hair, movie-star makeup and a beautiful nurse behind her. The title Over My Dead Body had suitably macabre appeal for Pan paperback readers. Once the book was accepted, Opie had little contact with the publishers. They sent her royalty cheques and informed her when a new addition of the book was being printed.
Over My Dead Body was picked up for serial publication by The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Editor Jean Wishart called it “one of the finest books we have ever serialised”. Opie’s story, said Wishart, “might have been considered morbid, depressing, monotonous or sad, yet it is none of these things. Instead, it is a rare blend of courage and humour—and most of the courage is to be found between the lines, for the writer makes it clear in a matter-of-fact sort of way that she has no time for self-pity.”
The Woman’s Weekly published photographs of the decorous and pretty Miss Opie. From the adoring letters to the editor from readers, it is evident that her character and determination inspired a generation of New Zealanders still living with the effects of polio.
Despite initially conceiving Over My Dead Body as a thank you to London friends and hospital staff and friends, Opie set up her story for dramatic effect. She created a narrative in which courage, pluck, and optimism help overcome debilitating disease. The story traverses her illness, her paralysis and confinement in the dreaded, but life-saving, iron lung, and her slow but triumphant recovery.
With the publication of Over My Dead Body, Pan found that illness narratives, when well-told, can be as captivating to readers as crime or adventure stories. Readers confronted with tragic illness might find in such books an insight into the nature of suffering and the challenges it brings. The great interest and longevity of books like this and Helen Keller’s story or Christy Brown’s My Left Foot suggest that they have a significant place in the literary canon.
 New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, p.1, June 3, 1957.
Lucy Hunter wrote her 490 History dissertation on illness narratives. She is Deputy Editor of Critic and an accomplished musician. She is obsessed with medical history.