Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups
and provide a deeper understanding of Charity Girl for every reader.
At the center of the novel hangs an ethical dilemma, where the rights of
the few are weighed against the health and safety of many. Would you
consider the government's moral crusade reasonable, given the circumstances
of wartime? In what other way might the need to maintain a healthy army have
been addressed? In what circumstances do we face similar choices today? What
modern relevance does Frieda's story have?
How would you describe Frieda Mintz's personality, and how does
Lowenthal bring her to life? Does she seem particularly rebellious or
attracted to danger, or is she more a regular girl trapped in a series of
bad situations? Did you find yourself sympathizing with her, identifying
with her? Were you ever frustrated by her actions? Placed in her situation,
would you have made the same choices that she did? How does Frieda change
during the course of the book?
Charity Girl opens in Boston in 1918; at the time, employment
choices for women were limited. Why does the prospect of being a shopgirl at
Jordan Marsh so appeal to Frieda? Aside from her wages, how does her job
Frieda moves to a boarding house in the city as a form of self-imposed
exile from her mother and their Russian immigrant community. What other
instances of banishment and displacementself-imposed or otherwiseare found
in the novel? How do these instances resonate with each other?
Frieda's friend Lou explains the rules for the dance: "Getting treated
when you pick up guys is one thing...and we're lots of us charity girls. But
it's never just for money, straight out." Why did the shopgirls like Lou and
Frieda note such fine distinctions? Why was it important to them to set up
such boundaries? What irony is there in the fact that Frieda was
incarcerated nonetheless? Do you agree with Mrs. Sprague's assessment that
the so-called 'charity girls' are more a threat than prostitutes? Were these
'charity girls' exploited, do you think, by their employers, by their
Did you find Felix an honorable character? What clues does Lowenthal
give about his true regard for Frieda? Why does Frieda hold such unwavering
belief in the rightness of his actions?
Frieda meets many vivid women at the Home. Each of her fellow
detaineesFlossie, Jo, Yetta, Hattie, Melba, Fleurhas a different response
to incarceration. What factors contributed to these diverse reactions? With
which woman's response did you identify most? How do you think you might
have responded if you had found yourself indefinitely detained?
Though the rounding up and subsequent detention of thousands of women
like Freida seems appalling from a modern vantage, some of the characters in
the book earnestly believe they are performing a public service by
participating in the government's program. What motivates Mrs. Sprague or
Alice Longley or Dr. Slocum to be party to the situation? Is their
Biology doesn't support Mrs. Sprague's notion that women are more to
blame than men for spreading disease. Why do you think only women were
targets of the government's detention efforts?
The novel is infused with themes of trustand betrayal of trust. What
are some instances of trust being misplaced? When is trust abused? What are
the consequences of the many betrayals of trust in the book?
Set during a time of intense, perhaps overbearing, patriotism, the novel
explores questions of identity and group belonging. Consider Frieda's Jewish
upbringing and her relationship to her religious identity. Felix is also
Jewish, but from a well-to-do, assimilating family; does Frieda have more in
common with him, because they're both Jewish, or with the gentile girls she
works with, because they're all similarly impoverished? Yetta perhaps holds
out another model of Judaism, that of an agitator for social justice. Frieda
seems both drawn to and repelled by her. Why?
The novels epigram reads: "Charity causes half the suffering she
relieves, but she cannot relieve half the suffering she has caused." What do
you think this means in the context of the novel? In the course of the
story, who gives what to whom, and what, if anything, do they expect in
return? If charity comes with real or perceived strings attached, can it be
Why do you think the author chose to write about the book's subject
matter as an imagined story rather than as a nonfiction account? What
information does historical fiction provide that may be absent from works of
history or the official record? How is the experience of reading Frieda's
story different from reading nonfiction accounts of the time? How, if at
all, does the novelist's modern perspective color the way he portrays
historic characters and events? What draws you to historical novels?
Why do you suppose the historical episode on which the novel was based,
which saw some 15,000 women incarcerated, remains so little known in America
today? Which, if any, events of our times are in danger of being similarly
lost to posterity?
Do you think, in the end, that Frieda finds redemption? What do you
imagine her life is like after the War? What does the final sequence tell
you about her fate? Is it an ending you would have wished for her?
For Further Reading The following paperbacks from Mariner Books may be of interest to readers
who enjoyed Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl:
Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick Gatsby's Girl by Caroline Preston Kit's Law by Donna Morrissey
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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