In Ami McKay new novel,'girls sold matches ... then themselves’

Ami McKa's debut novel, The Birth House, was highly successful.

Ami McKay’s debut novel, The Birth House, was highly successful.

Photograph by: Ian McKay, Random House

An arresting title: The Virgin Cure. Arresting, too, the shocking myth it alludes to, a widely held belief of the 19th century that a man with syphilis could “cleanse his blood” by having sex with a virgin.

The Virgin Cure is Ami McKay’s follow-up novel to her highly successful debut, The Birth House. Set in rural Nova Scotia in the First World War era, The Birth House was inspired by McKay’s discovery that her home had once belonged to a midwife. The Virgin Cure goes back yet another couple of generations and shifts the scene to New York City’s Lower East Side in 1871. But its inspiration still remains personal. It so happens that McKay’s great-great-grandmother, Sadie Fonda Macintosh, was a pioneering physician in New York’s slums who championed poor women and children and wrote her thesis on venereal disease.

In an Afterword to The Virgin Cure, McKay notes that she originally intended to write the book in the voice of Dr. Sadie, as she calls the character. Indeed the novel – even more pronouncedly designed as a scrapbook than was The Birth House – contains Dr. Sadie’s (fictional) glosses and asides. But its first-person narrator isn’t a bluestocking do-gooder. Retracing her American ancestor’s footsteps in the old streets of Manhattan, McKay began to hear the words of a very different character, a 12-year-old street girl named Moth.

McKay dramatizes Moth’s beginnings with a masterful hand. The daughter of a Gypsy fortune teller and a ne’er-do-well who abandoned them both when Moth was 3, she endures privation in the worst of the tenements on Chrystie St. “The walls and roof of the outhouses leaned on each other like drunken whores, all tipsy, weeping and foul. … Boys grew into guttersnipes, then pickpockets, then roughs. … Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn, and then themselves.” And yet Moth is a lover of the fire and energy of her native city. In an incantatory passage that presages her fall from such grace as Chrystie St. affords, she says, “We came from rear tenements and cellar floors, from poverty and pride. All sneak and steal, hush and flight, those of us who lived past thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, those of us who managed to make any luck of ourselves at all – we became New York.”

Emotionally starved by her burdened and neglectful mother, Moth has two favourite fantasies. One is that her father will return and her mother will be transformed into the calico-clad cheerful woman kissing her daughter’s head on the laundry detergent box. Convinced that she is meant for better things than the slums, she also dreams of living in a mansion like the one owned by the independent spinster she stalks on summer nights.

What follows instead is the first of a chain of dreadful betrayals: Moth’s mother sells her, age 12, for an undisclosed sum to a rich and sadistic mistress as a lady’s maid. Mrs. Wentworth is a gothic horror, and the details of Moth’s enslavement test the reader’s stomach and credulity. Mercifully, the child escapes her torturer with the help of a sympathetic but venal butler, only to find on her return to Chrystie St. that her mother is gone without a trace.

Now totally homeless, Moth fends by begging and theft, ripe for exploitation. Predictably, she is inducted into prostitution – still at the age of 12 – but at a whore house with a difference. Miss Emma Everett runs a so-called Infant School, a doctor-inspected, high-class brothel specializing in young, “certified” virgins, who service wealthy older men. One of its patrons is the chief detective of the city’s police force.

It is in this establishment that Dr. Sadie’s path crosses with Moth’s. The suspense of the plot hinges on whether the doctor can save the girl from the fate she is intent on succumbing to. For although naive about sex, Moth has a totally realistic grasp of her situation. “My virtue was a dangerous thing to keep, especially on the street. … At least under Miss Everett’s roof I hoped I might get the chance to give it up for a fair price.”

Moth’s dark and spunky tale is shot through with some bright threads. Much of the pleasure of The Virgin Cure is derived from the ingenious way in which McKay weaves in extensive research on the fashions, mores and beliefs of the period. She brings the Bowery – the main thoroughfare of Moth’s neighbourhood – to life with its seedy dance halls, saloons and variety theatres. She shows us Dr. Sadie on her worthy rounds among the indigent. She reproduces ads for the circus, fashion reports from Harper’s Bazar and statistics on the life cycle of rats. Above all, she delivers another compelling story inhabiting the borderlands of popular and literary fiction.

The Virgin Cure

by Ami McKay

Review published in

November 11, 2011

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