We Are the Past

I don’t know what prompted me to download The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, but I am very happy I did. This reading discovery was like winning a lottery prize for reading addicts. This is a five-star, highly recommended, 340-page historical fiction account of socially horrible conditions in 1870s New York. There is extreme life-threatening hunger and poverty, incurable disease, human trafficking of children, youthful crime, adult crime, political corruption, and drug addiction. The story is primarily told through the first-person narrative of Moth (she will have other names) as she relates her life experiences from the age of twelve to nineteen. Other characters will present different, clearly delineated points of view also using the first person. The novel is fast-paced and a page-turner. I impressed myself with my reading speed by finishing the novel in four and a half hours, unusually fast for me. Then I sat back to think about it for one hour before starting to write this review.

The organization of the novel is clever and one of the reasons I didn’t stop turning pages. I first saw this: “To the Reader: In 1871, I was serving as a visiting physician for the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. While seeing to the health and well-being of the residents of the Lower East Side, I met a young girl, twelve years of age, named Moth. In the pages that follow you will find her story, told in her own words, along with occasional notes from my hand.” (p.2). The physician is female and has devoted her life to caring for the indigent. The person is real and in this novel is based on an ancestor of the author.

Then there is this first line which I liked: “I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.” (p.3). Moth lives with her mother in a ramshackle one-room tenement building (bathroom outside). Mom sells everything she can when she and Moth need food. Mom sells herself for the rent. Dad left long ago but he didn’t go far, just a few blocks away to a younger woman. Mom mostly ignores Moth. There is minimal conversation. And when Mom sold Moth to Mrs. Wentworth to work as a maid, she handed Moth a bag of a few bits of memorabilia and sent her out the door. No goodbyes. Moth always wondered what her price had been.

While working for Mrs. Wentworth, Moth was beaten frequently. Readers will never know why this happened, but the beatings increased in severity as they led to a stabbing. Moth knew she needed to get away or die. She had written to her mother a few times but there were no replies. Nestor, a male house servant, helped Moth get away and encouraged Moth to steal a few pieces of jewelry from Mrs. Wentworth’s jewelry box. Some would go to Nestor. He would also transport Moth to a rich businessman who was also a fence in stolen goods. Nestor had done this for prior servants to the sadistic Mrs. Wentworth. Moth would be able to live a few days but was on the street to live by her wits.

She “accidentally” met Mae, an “almost-whore” on the streets. From this point, she was introduced to an “Infant School,” a place where selected ladies were prepared for the sale of their virginity when the mistress of the house determined the time was right. Moth entered Ms. Everett’s house at the age of thirteen, although she claimed to be fifteen. She would live at the house, receive medical treatment, food and nourishment, and training so that she could receive a good price for her virginity.

In Chapter twenty-two, readers will encounter a sideshow run by Thaddeous Dink. There are bearded ladies, sword swallowers, and all manner of strange attractions. I am going to take the model of a sideshow for the rest of this review and point out some unusual cultural attractions of the time, using quotes from the research of the author. The story is interesting but the cool things you can learn to impress your friends around the water cooler are also fun.

Although this takes place after 1870, Moth and those around her are familiar with the following: “Lachrymatories, or tear-catchers, were worn by brides during the war. The women were to fill the bottles with their tears as a sign of devotion to their husbands while they were away. Many men never returned from battle, and thus their wives were left to pour their tears of loneliness on their husbands’ graves.” (p.189). These small items were a type of jewelry. And even though the Civil War was over, the jewelry items remained as women would use them in times of sadness as with the death of loved ones.

The following explains the title The Virgin Core: “There may not be any signs of the disease when you first encounter a gentleman with syphilis. It tends to go into hiding for long periods of time. Men think they’re safe when they’re not. If a gentleman appears to have a gray-blue complexion, suffers from sore gums and excess saliva, or bears a scent akin to fried potatoes, you can be sure he’s taking mercury to try to hold it back. When the mercury fails, many men get desperate. Some turn to virgins, thinking that their innocence holds a cure.” (p.201). That a person with syphilis would be cured of it by having sex with a virgin seems ridiculous but not only do people today still believe it, there is also an unfortunate corollary. People today who are afraid of AIDS but do not want to use condoms will confine their sexual activities to virgins, another promotion of human trafficking.

Fashion photography of the 1870s demanded the subject hold still for long periods of time. They were placed in harnesses and braces to restrict movements. Photography sessions could last a long time so the strapped in subjects were made comfortable. We have this: “Ether is used by physicians and photographers alike. Known for its sweet, medicinal scent, it can have an intoxicating effect when used in confined spaces.” (p.306).

Blood sports, such as boxing, were popular. Cadet, a bouncer at Ms. Everett’s house, had a father with the following occupation: ““Cadet’s father was the official bloodsucker there,” Alice said, her eyes wide. “A bloodsucker?” “His job was to suck blood from the fighters’ wounds, so bouts could go on as long as possible.” (p.154).

There are so many surprises of cultural practices at the time as well as many surprises in the story that I could go on commenting for much longer. This massively entertaining novel is available on Amazon for USD 1.99. The good news is this author has written more great stuff. Read this and make your own comparisons to what is happening today. Talk about History repeating itself …

 

2 comments

  1. Wow, seems like 1870’s New York was a terrible to be poor in. While we may have medicine and cures now, I do believe, sadly, that the other criminal and unjust practises still continue.

    1. Absolutely bad things still happen. I travel and live in Southeast Asia; Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia. The reality in 1870s New York plays out in SE Asia every day. Sometimes, when people fantasize about a superior Western culture, I point out warts in our history with novels such as this. Like it or not, we are all in this together.

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