The Virgin Cure

  • Ami McKay
  • HarperCollins
  • 336 pp.

Like Stephen Crane’s Maggie, this novel set in the Bowery of Manhattan examines the horrors and hopes of the poor young women sold into sexual slavery in the 1870s.

Reviewed by Susan Clark

The “virgin cure” is the belief that intercourse with a virgin will cure a man of a sexually transmitted disease. Many people in the world today reportedly believe that this is a cure for AIDS. In the late 19th century, many people in England and the United States believed that it would cure syphilis, and that belief led to a trade in very young women, a trade that was lucrative for madams and parents and devastating to the young women. It is the 19th-century “virgin cure” that gives this book its title.

Most of the story is told in the voice of 12-year-old Moth, who is living in the turbulent slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1871. Her father left when she was 3. Her mother, “a slum-house mystic,” sells Moth, not as a prostitute but as a servant to a wealthy woman, Mrs. Wentworth. Moth does her best to learn to be a lady’s maid, but Mrs. Wentworth is abusive, blacking Moth’s eyes and raising welts on her face with a fan. Mrs. Wentworth hacks off Moth’s hair, even slashes her fingers with the scissors when Moth tries to defend herself. Moth runs away, back to her home, only to find that her mother is gone.

Moth tries stealing to survive, but she’s not very good at it. She’s saved from a pursuer by Mae, a young girl of 15 who’s dressed in fashionable clothes. Mae is an “almost whore,” a young girl being groomed as a seductive “fresh,” whose virginity will be sold to a high bidder at Miss Emma Everett’s establishment. Moth joins the establishment, learns ladylike manners and pastimes, and performs strip-tease for gatherings of Miss Everett’s clientele.

An earnest young female doctor, Dr. Sadie, examines the girls for signs of disease. She tries persuading them to  follow different paths, but it’s clear there are few alternatives available to them. Author Ami McKay based the character on a real doctor, her own great-great-grandmother, who was not only one of the first female physicians in the United States but also wrote her graduate thesis on the grim subject of syphilis. McKay’s previous novel, The Birth House, centered on  midwives in a remote area of Nova Scotia in the 1900s, won several prestigious Canadian awards and was a best seller in Canada.

In The Virgin Cure, McKay renders the New York City underworld in vivid detail, from the “twitchy pinch-pinch-pinch of rats in the wall” to Moth’s gratitude and hunger as she wolfs down a cup of cheap oyster stew to the elaborate fashions she is privileged to wear as one of Miss Everett’s girls. The novel is interspersed with grim notes from Dr. Sadie, gushing newspaper articles and reviews of ladies’ fashion.

McKay lets us know that this is in many ways an alien world, with different assumptions about right and wrong, and an occasionally baffling vocabulary. Moth, for instance, proudly claims the heritage of “Black Dutch,” and Moth points out that “the Jews and Gypsies and swarthy Germans all claimed Black Dutch for themselves. It meant that however they looked, they could be whatever they liked.  … ” The street boys insult Moth as a “dirty little Gyp,” and she goes home to scrub her face with salt, “wishing that at least one of them would fall in love with me and that all the rest would die.”

Moth becomes envious of a sideshow artist billed as a “Circassian beauty.” This was a widely used term in late-19-th-century America, believed to describe a beauty unique to the Caucasus (the “purest” type of Caucasian), characterized chiefly by huge quantities of curly hair. Pictures of Circassian beauties from the period show women wearing what appears to be a wildly outgrown Afro hairstyle, a coif allegedly encouraged by the application of beer. P.T. Barnum’s sideshow featured such beauties, whom he claimed to have purchased in Europe to free them from Turkish slavery. Most historians now believe the women were local actresses.

McKay’s story is gritty, and could be grim, but Moth is a lively and spirited narrator, and the reader will be rooting for her to avoid what seems to be an inevitable doom. The Virgin Cure is not for the reader who thinks historical fiction should be a romantic story in period clothing. For those who savor the earthiness and tumult of the time and place, it is an interesting, informative and often surprising read.

Susan Storer Clark, a frequent contributor to The Independent,  recently completed The Monk Woman’s Daughter, a historical novel set in 19th-century America. She has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years and is a former broadcast journalist and a retired civil servant who now lives with her husband, Rich, in Silver Spring, Md.

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