Summary and book reviews of Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Charity Girl

By Michael Lowenthal

Charity Girl
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2007,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2008,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

Charity Girl examines one of the darkest periods in our history, when patriotic fervor and fear led to devastating consequences. During World War I, the U.S. government went on a moral and medical campaign, quarantining and incarcerating young women who were thought to have venereal diseases. Most were called “charity girls,” or working-class girls who happened to have had relationships with infected men. Through the eyes of one fictional charity girl, this novel explores an astonishing time.

Frieda Mintz, a Jewish seventeen-year-old bundle wrapper at Jordan Marsh in Boston, spends one impulsive night with an infected soldier. Soon after, she is tracked down and sent to a makeshift detention center, where she is subject to invasive physical exams, poor living conditions, and a creeping erosion of all she thought she knew about herself. Buoying her, though, is a cast of women as strong as they are diverse, and they soon teach one another about dependence, and eventually independence.

Charity Girl lays bare an ugly part of our past, when the government exercised a questionable level of authority at the expense of its citizens’ rights. The book casts long shadows and explores the most important, urgent questions of desire, freedom, and identity.

Excerpt
Charity Girl

Someone has come for her — someone is here! — and gossip speeds so readily through Ladies’ Undergarments that Frieda, in a twinkling, is forewarned. (The elevator boy tells the stock girl, who tells her.) She grins, but as the newest- hired wrapper at Jordan Marsh she’s still minded awfully closely by Mr. Crowley, so she struggles against the glee and keeps to work. She snaps a box open and handily tucks its ends, crimps tissue around the latest stranger’s buys: a nainsook chemise, a crêpe de Chine camisole. But her fingers, as she’s knotting up the package, snarl the string.

She’s been waiting for him to come again, conjuring. Every day this week, she’s woken half an hour early to wash her hair and put herself together. On the modest black shirtwaist required by Jordan’s dress code gleams her only brooch: Papa’s gold seashell. She’s nibbled at tablets of arsenic to pale her face...

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

The particular moment in history that Lowenthal explores will be news to most, but the tale of governments overruling the rights of those without the influence to defend themselves is familiar .... Of course, this is all in the past, something like this couldn't happen in America today, could it?   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Anita Shreve

That few readers of Lowenthal's deserving novel will ever have heard of the detention of the "charity girls" is astonishing. That Lowenthal has made us aware of them is nothing short of a gift.

The San Francisco Chronicle - Jesse Berrett

It's a measure of the author's success that you keep hoping for a fairy-tale ending even when every clue hints that nothing similar is remotely possible.

Booklist - Marta Segal

This is an interesting, if flawed, fictional introduction to a disturbing part of our history.

Publishers Weekly

Lowenthal ably captures the transformation of a naïve adolescent into a woman in his provocative story.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Harrowing yet inspiring,...rich in period detail, swift-paced prose and deserved political outrage.

Reader Reviews
Barbara

Charity Girl
I found Charity Girl a very enlightening novel. It covers a period that is not commonly found in literature from a unique perspective. Of course, we have heard of the "studies" on mental patients and the disabled during World War II and this ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Michael Lowenthal is the author of the novels Charity Girl (2007), Avoidance (2002) and The Same Embrace (1998). His short stories have appeared in Tin House, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and Witness, and have been widely anthologized. Three of his stories have received "Special Mention" in Pushcart Prize anthologies. He has also written nonfiction for the New York Times Magazine, Boston Magazine, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Out, and many other publications.

Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as an editor for University Press of New England, where he founded the Hardscrabble Books imprint, publishing such authors as Chris Bohjalian, W.D. Wetherell, and Ernest Hebert. He studied ...

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