Excerpt from Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Charity Girl

by Michael Lowenthal

Charity Girl
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 336 pages
    Jan 2008, 336 pages

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Print Excerpt

From the skein, she snips off a prickly length of twine. She’ll count to ten — no, twenty — then allow a quick peek up. By then, she thinks, he’ll be right here. Here.

She’s at twelve — doubting she can last eight further counts — when a lady’s treacly voice says, “Frieda Mintz?”

Instinct almost makes Frieda deny it. She hates to hear her name asked as a question. In a tiny, grudging tone she says, “I’m her.”

“Good, then. Wonderful. How easy.”

Get on with it, Frieda wants to say.

Get on with it and get the heck away from my counter so I can be alone when Felix shows.

The lady has a damsel’s braids the color of a dusty blackboard, as though her schoolgirl self was aged abruptly. Her smile shows a neat set of teeth. “I’m sorry to have come to your workplace,” she says, “but it’s all the information we were given. Is there somewhere we can speak more privately?”

Only now does Frieda see that Felix isn’t coming, that her visitor is — who? How does this stranger know her name? The pressure in her joints pinches tight. “No,” she says. “I’ve got to stay. I’m working.”

“But I really must speak with you, Miss Mintz.”

“I had my break already,” Frieda says.

“Then I guess we’ll just have to talk here.” The woman shivers slightly, hunch-shouldered and indignant, like someone caught suddenly in the rain. “I’m Mrs. Sprague. I’m with the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps.”

The long, daunting name is a gale that buffets Frieda, dizzying, disorienting. Evils.

“You’re familiar with our work?”

Frieda manages to mumble no.

“Well, we’re trying to do our bit to win the war. For those of us who can’t actually enlist ourselves and fight, that means supporting our boys in every way — isn’t that right?”

Mrs. Sprague’s churchy tone reminds Frieda of the man who came into Jordan’s last Thursday to train a squad of four-minute speakers. (As if Boston needs another squad! At every movie hall and subway stop she’s heard them, preaching in the same zealous accent.) When Frieda walked past the employees’ room at lunch, she heard the speech coach’s red-blooded baritone (“Whenever possible, address crowds in the first-person plural. It makes them feel invested, don’t we think?”) and the class’s steel- trap response (“We do!”).

“I said, isn’t that right, Miss Mintz?”

Frieda stares at her twine-roughened fingers. “Suppose so.”

“You ‘suppose.’ But do you really understand?” The lady’s smile widens, showing more tidy teeth. “Too many girls — too many pretty ones like you — get their desire to help soldiers all mixed up with . . . well, with desire itself.”

How does she know of Frieda’s longing for a soldier? Did she spy her with Felix at the ballgame? (The game was the only public place they went.) “And here’s something I bet you haven’t heard,” says Mrs. Sprague. “Have you heard that more soldiers are hospitalized now with social diseases than with battle wounds?”

Frieda, in confusion, shakes her head. How could a disease be something social?

“Most girls don’t know that. Most don’t want to. And if a soldier’s hurt when he goes over the top, that’s the price of freedom, and we’ll pay it. But any man hit by this other kind of sickness — well, he’s crippled in his body and his soul.” The last word seems to trigger something in the woman; she takes one of her gray braids and twists it round her thumb, as if remembering long-ago pain. “A bullet wound can heal. Not a soul.”

Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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