Chasing Orion is set in the summer of 1952 during a polio outbreak. As the story begins, eleven-year-old Georgie Mason is upset because she is not allowed to go swimming for fear of infection and because her parents have forced her to move to a new neighborhood. She is shocked out of her glum mood when she learns that her new neighbor, Phyllis Keller, is among the polio victims. Phyllis is confined to an artificial breathing device called an iron lung. Georgie follows reports of the polio epidemic in the news, and she wants to see a real polio victim. That afternoon, while watering trees in her yard, she sneaks closer to Phyllis’s house and hears someone reading a poem aloud. She gets a glimpse of the strange, silvery machine and thinks it looks like the Thing from the movie The Thing From Another World.
Georgie’s hobby is building small worlds, usually scenes from stories, inside boxes. While watching stars one evening with her older brother, Emmett, she gets the idea to build a world based on a constellation. Not long afterward she goes to the library to find stories about the characters in the sky, and she meets Evelyn Winkler, an extremely intelligent but unattractive girl. Evelyn helps her decide to base her small world on the story of Orion.
Soon Phyllis’s mother, Mrs. Keller, invites Emmett and Georgie to come and meet Phyllis. Georgie has been thinking of the girl in the iron lung as a freak, but when they meet in person, she quickly realizes Phyllis is a whole person. The iron lung is fascinating, and Phyllis is entirely enclosed inside it except for her head. The machine is equipped with mirrors that allow her to see people and objects around her.
Phyllis is an older teenager. Before her illness, she was popular and glamorous. Although Georgie pities Phyllis, she also admires the ill girl’s commanding way with people and her sense of style. When it becomes clear that Phyllis has a crush on Emmett, Georgie jumps at the chance to help. Emmett, a shy science nerd, has never had a girlfriend before, so Georgie thinks Phyllis can be like his “starter kit.” When she says this, it makes him angry. However, he begins visiting Phyllis regularly, and he often takes his telescope so they can watch the stars together. Georgie feels left out, so she invites Evelyn over to help spy.
Emmet tells Phyllis about the small worlds Georgie makes, and Phyllis invites Georgie over to show her one. Georgie takes a scene of Saint George and the Dragon. While she is there, she sees that Emmett seems more interested in fiddling with the iron lung than in talking to Phyllis. Phyllis’s father, Dr. Keller, shows Phyllis a new device he has built to allow her to read more easily. Phyllis thanks him, but Georgie can see that she does not like it. Dr. Keller brags that Phyllis lives the fullest life possible for a person in an iron lung, but Georgie is upset that everyone seems to think more about the machine Phyllis lives in than about Phyllis herself.
On another visit, Georgie listens to Mrs. Keller read to Phyllis from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem called “The Lady of Shalott.” The poem is about a woman locked in a tower, cursed to look at the world only through mirrors. She does not look directly at life until she dies. Georgie listens, feeling sickened, as she realizes that Phyllis is cursed in the same way. Later, when she and Georgie are alone, Phyllis admits that she pretends to love her mother’s poem and her father’s gadgets becuase her parents will go crazy if they do not think she can accept life in the iron lung. Georgie thinks she may be the only person in Phyllis’s life who thinks of her as who she really is, not just a person trapped in a machine. She respects Phyllis as a strong person and resolves to help her if possible.
Georgie takes Emmett aside and tells him he is “sidelining” Phyllis by putting the machine ahead of the person. Emmett pays more attention to Phyllis and soon begins falling in love. This is what Georgie wanted, but now she cannot help feeling sidelined herself. She goes to Phyllis’s house to hang out with the couple sometimes, but they hardly seem to notice her. As she watches them, she grows uneasy. She sees that Emmett is falling in love with Phyllis, but she suspects that Phyllis does not feel the same way. Georgie wonders why...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)