Reading guide for Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Charity Girl

by Michael Lowenthal

Charity Girl
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

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 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?
  3. 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 benefit her?
  4. 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 displacement—self-imposed or otherwise—are found in the novel? How do these instances resonate with each other?
  5. 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 suitors?
  6. 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?
  7. Frieda meets many vivid women at the Home. Each of her fellow detainees—Flossie, Jo, Yetta, Hattie, Melba, Fleur—has 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?
  8. 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 participation defensible?
  9. 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?
  10. The novel is infused with themes of trust—and 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?
  11. 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?
  12. The novel’s 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 true charity?
  13. 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?
  14. 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?
  15. 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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
  • Book Jacket: The Mothers
    The Mothers
    by Brit Bennett
    Every now and then the publishing industry gushes about a young author destined to become the next ...
  • Book Jacket
    by Tom Jackson
    Growing up in Mumbai in the '70s, I still remember herbs kept fresh in small glasses of water, ...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Cruel Beautiful World
    by Caroline Leavitt

    A fast moving page-turner about the naiveté of youth and the malignity of power.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Les Parisiennes
    by Anne Sebba

    How the women of Paris lived, loved, and died under Nazi occupation.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Comet Seekers
    by Helen Sedgwick

    A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.