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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
"I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart."
So begins The Virgin Cure, a novel set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth's father smiled, tipped his hat and walked away from her forever. The summer she turned twelve, her mother sold her as a servant to a wealthy woman, with no intention of ever seeing her again.
These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks and prostitutes, where eventually she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as "The Infant School." Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and clean," and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth.
Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her, where her new friends are falling prey to the myth of the "virgin cure" - that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal the incurable and tainted. She knows the law will not protect her, that polite society ignores her, and still she dreams of answering to no one but herself. There's a high price for such independence, though, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.
The Virgin Cure
TO THE READER:
In 1871, I was serving as a visiting physician for the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. While seeing to the health and well-being of the residents of the Lower East Side, I met a young girl, twelve years of age, named Moth. In the pages that follow, you will find her story, told in her own words, along with occasional notes from my hand. In the tradition of my profession, I intended to limit my remarks to scientific observations only, but in the places where I felt compelled to do so, I've added a page or two from my past. These additions are offered in kindness and with the best of intentions.
OCTOBER 1878 S.F.H., DOCTOR OF MEDICINE
Recall ages - One age is but a part - ages are but a part;
Recall the angers, bickerings, delusions, superstitions, of the idea of caste,
Recall the bloody cruelties and crimes.
Anticipate the best women;
I say an unnumbered new race of hardy and well-defined
women are to spread through all These States,
I say a girl fit for These States must be free, capable, dauntless,
just the same as a boy.
- WALT WHITMAN
Shrewdness, large capital, business enterprise, are all
enlisted in the lawless stimulation of this mighty instinct of sex.
- DR. ELIZABETH BLACKWELL,
Founder of the New York Infirmary
for Indigent Women and Children
I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.
My father ran off when I was three years old. He emptied the rent money out of the biscuit tin and took my mother's only piece of silver - a tarnished sugar bowl she'd found in the rubble of a Third Avenue fire.
"Don't go..." Mama would call out in her sleep, begging and pulling at the blanket we shared as if it were the sleeve of my father's coat. Lying next to her, I'd wish for morning and the hours when she'd go back to hating him. At least then her bitterness would be awake enough to keep her alive.
She never held my hand in hers or let me kiss her cheeks. If I asked to sit on her lap, she'd pout and push me away and say, "When you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, Child, that should be enough.
"I didn't mind. I loved her.
I loved the way she'd tie her silk scarf around her head and then bring the ends of it to trail down her neck. I loved how she'd grin, baring her teeth all the way up to the top of her gums when she looked at herself in the mirror, how she'd toss her shawl around her shoulders and run her fingers through the black fringe of it before setting her fortune-teller's sign in the window for the day. The sign had a pretty, long-fingered hand painted right in the middle, with lines and arrows and words criss-crossing the palm. The Ring of Solomon, The Girdle of Venus. Head, heart, fate, fortune, life. Those were the first words I ever read.
It was my father who gave me my name. Mama said it came to him at a place called Pear Tree Corner - "whispered by a tree so old it knew all the secrets of New York." The apothecary who owned the storefront there told my father that he could ask the tree any question he liked and if he listened hard enough it would answer. My father believed him.
"Call the child Moth," the twisted tree had said, its branches bending low, leaves brushing against my father's ear. Mama had been there too, round-faced and waddling with me inside her belly, but she didn't hear it.
"It was the strangest, most curious thing," my father told her. "Like when a pretty girl first tells you she loves you. I swear to God."
Mama said she'd rather call me Ada, after Miss Ada St. Clair, the wealthiest lady she'd ever met, but my father wouldn't allow it. He didn't care that Miss St. Clair had a diamond ring for every finger and two pug dogs grunting and panting at her feet. He was sure that going against what the tree had said would bring bad luck.
Excerpted from The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay. Copyright © 2012 by Ami McKay. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
Historical fiction is a genre with which I am developing a fuller and more positive relationship. Based on past reading experiences, I had previously avoided this area of literature thinking it too dry or, even worse, too gushy and unrealistically romantic. But then, through a few excellent selections by my in-person book group, I began to really love historical fiction and also began to actively seek it out when making my reading choices.
In 2006, I read The Birth House by Ami McKay. A-HA! This was great historical fiction! (The novel was a national bestseller in Canada and was longlisted for the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.) When I heard McKay had another book being released, I was so excited and couldn't wait to immerse myself in it. The Virgin Cure does not disappoint! Like The Birth House, it encompasses everything I want in a story: well developed and realistic characters, rich and layered settings and a very compelling narrative. I didn't feel smacked in the face by an author trying to cram an overwhelming amount of research into their story. (A sensation I have experienced several times while reading historical fiction. When this happens, the research becomes very obvious, and I am taken out of the story.)
This novel is so vivid. In reading McKay's words, I felt as though I could see, hear, touch and smell the world of Lower Manhattan in 1871. The story follows a brief and chaotic year in the life of twelve-year-old Moth Fenwick. Moth's voice grabs attention from the first line: "I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart." Immediately I felt a protectiveness of Moth and read the story with the hope she would emerge from her lot in life with as little damage as possible.
The slice of life McKay introduces to readers is bleak. The people living in the slums of New York City seem fated to desperation and struggle for survival. "Boys grew into guttersnipes, then pickpockets, then roughs... Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn and then themselves." But Moth is a feisty and determined girl and far less naive than a twelve-year-old should be. She has very modest dreams and plans to escape her mother and their life when she turns thirteen. Fully realizing that she, as a young girl, is a commodity - whether sold by her mother to work as a servant for well-to-do families, or selling her virginity to the highest bidder - "It was never a question of yes or no. It was simply a matter of which man would have you first." Moth's wish is to be in control of her own life and negotiate the world on her own terms, even though her options seem very limited.
Moth's mother preempts her daughter's escape plans by selling her into service to Mrs. Wentworth, a woman who turns out to be cruel and irrational. Not wanting to disappoint her mother or lose their source of financial support, Moth endures vicious treatment and abuse at the hands of Mrs. Wentworth. After one particularly brutal attack, Moth realizes she must leave the house in order to save herself further harm. After her mother abandons her, and always in the mindset of a survivor, Moth becomes another homeless child trying to eke out a living on the streets of the Bowery.
During this time, Moth meets Miss Everett, known for running an excellent brothel (as far as these things go, I suppose). She caters to a clientele who pay a premium for the virginity of the girls she has trained. Moth realizes this is not an ideal situation but sees this choice as a means to an end and a way to fulfill her dreams of escape. Through Miss Everett Moth meets Dr. Sadie, a female physician, and finally we have a character with a voice of reason who tries to protect Moth and recognizes the magnitude of problems facing women in the slums of New York. Dr. Sadie tries to offer an alternative life to Moth, tries to let her know she can provide Moth a different path to follow. Dr. Sadie also offers the young girl an education in health, hygiene and disease.
The title of the book may be a curiosity to some. The Virgin Cure references a misguided and harmful belief that men suffering from syphilis could sleep with a virgin and be cured of their disease. Through the voices of Moth and Dr. Sadie we come to learn how extensive this belief is and how tragic the outcomes are.
While much of my description of the book and the information in this review may seem dark or heavy, The Virgin Cure is to be commended for addressing a difficult subject with humanity and in a way that is very accessible to readers. This story is full of life, and the will of a young girl to find a better way in the world than the one she knows is so strong on every page. McKay doesn't make Moth's journey easy, and that is to her credit. Moth must travel the path set out from her birth. That she does so wisely and with her eyes open - despite enduring pain, loss, and sadness - makes the experience of reading The Virgin Cure so much more real. Moth will take up space in your heart, and you will thank McKay for the gift of this story.
Reviewed by Jennifer Dawson Oakes
Rated of 5
by Diane S.
The Virgin Cure
In 1870 over thirty thousand children lived on the streets in New York, and at the age of twelve Moth, the main character becomes one such child, if only for a short time. Had no idea the numbers were so large and that what happened to these children so heartbreaking. This is the story of Moth and also of Dr. Sadie, who tries to help the indigent in whatever small ways she can. Enjoyed this book, and the newspaper articles and small asides were a big plus, helping the reader really enter into this time period. Would have given it a four if not for the ending, which I thought was a bit anticlimactic and rushed. Dr. Sadie was actually modeled on the author's great great grandmother, which T think is wonderful. Very good book for understanding New York in this time period and for fully immersing the reader in the lives of two very interesting characters
As Ami McKay notes in the afterword of The Virgin Cure: "In 1870, there were over thirty thousand children living on the streets of New York and many more who wandered in and out of cellars and tenements as their families struggled to scrape together enough income to put food on the table."
The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women & Children was opened on May 12, 1857 by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was born in 1821 in Bristol, England and is credited with being the first female to receive a medical degree in the United States. (This hospital still exists, but today it is known as the New York Downtown Hospital.) The mission of both Elizabeth and her sister, Emily Blackwell - who earned her medical doctorate five years after her sister in 1854 - was to bring proper medical services to the thousands of women and children living in poverty on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Many of the residents in this area of New York City were recent immigrants. Their living conditions, if they had homes, were deplorable and disease was rampant. Very early on, Blackwell focused on the importance of hygiene in daily living. Blackwell would also, as Dr. Sadie does in The Virgin Cure, make house-calls in order to visit and treat her patients. Women providing medical services at this time were often viewed purely as providers of abortions. It was the hope of the Blackwell sisters to change this perception and prove women were as capable as men in the field of medicine.
As in The Virgin Care, at the time of the hospital's founding, female doctors were not only rare but judged harshly by society for not conforming to expectations. In the novel, Dr. Sadie forgoes a life of marriage and family for many years because of her choice to practice medicine. Her family doesn't agree with her decision to forge a career and, consequently, she distances herself from them. Many women who wanted to attend medical school and work as doctors faced extreme opposition; not least Elizabeth Blackwell who, according to journalist Leo Trachtenberg, was only offered admission to Geneva Medical School because the students - who were charged with voting on her admission - thought her application to be a joke. He writes:
For a while, it seemed as if America would reject Blackwell: she applied to more than 20 U.S. medical schools during early 1847; none granted her admission. It was an anxious, disheartening time. In October 1847, though, a letter arrived from tiny Geneva Medical College in upstate New York that proved decisive for Blackwell and for American medicine. It simply stated that the college faculty had voted to admit her if the student body unanimously approved. A short time later, the students - playing along with what they thought a professorial joke - voted to let her in. Much to their surprise, a 26-year-old Blackwell, wearing a simple gray frock and bonnet, showed up in Geneva on November 6, 1847, to begin her medical education.
Though now officially enrolled, Blackwell still faced deep and widespread disapproval. "I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety," she wrote, "that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman... or that being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent." But the faculty, at least, soon became grateful for Blackwell's demure presence: when she attended a lecture the normally rowdy male students suddenly grew reserved and studious.
She proved a very bright and competent student, graduating at the top of her class on January 23, 1849.
The dedication at the beginning of The Virgin Cure is to Sarah Fonda Mackintosh, Ami McKay's great-great-grandmother and the real Dr. Sadie. To read more about McKay's personal inspiration for The Virgin Cure, visit her website. And to learn more about Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, click on the video below.
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