Being a huge fan of historical novels, I was eager to read The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay, a new-to-me Canadian author whose first novel (The Birth House) was a number one best seller in that country. I’m not surprised, because McKay’s writing and story telling skills are epic.
The Virgin Cure is set in Lower Manhattan circa 1871. It’s the story of Moth, a young girl growing up alone on some very mean streets filled with orphaned children and desperate women trying to eke out some kind of living. Moth’s father is long gone, and her mother is a Gypsy fortune teller who sells her 12 year old daughter into servitude with a cruel, abusive society matron. Moth eventually escapes and spends some months on the streets before she is taken in by the charming Miss Everett, a Madam who runs something called an Infant School, which is really a brothel catering to gentlemen willing to pay a premium for desirable young virgins like Moth. In fact, some of them are seeking the fabled “Virgin Cure” – the belief that having intercourse with a virgin will cure them of syphilis. Moth’s friendship with Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works among the indigent population, gives her the courage she needs to see a better life for herself.
Moth is a totally engaging character, and I longed to reach back in time and scoop her up for myself, bring her home with me and give her a good life. McKay creates such breathtaking word pictures that reading the novel is almost frightening at times, the reader feels so involved in the time and place.
And what a time and place! We talk a lot today about the poor situations children find themselves in – gangs and single parent families, hunger and lack of education. We tend to forget the history of maltreatment of children in this country. In an author’s note, McKay writes that over 30,000 children lived on the streets of New York city in 1870. Even more of them wandered in and out of tenements as their families struggled to find food and shelter. Most of these children were illiterate and would end up as thieves and prostitutes, dead before they ever reached adulthood. McKay’s interest in this time period was sparked when she learned about her own great-great grandmother, the original Dr. Sadie, who worked the streets of New York along with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician, caring for the women and children of the city.
The Virgin Cure is a fascinating look at this time and place in our history. But it’s also a story of perseverance and hope. Because Moth does find good people among the bad, people who care about her and are willing to help her, people who step up to make a difference, one child at a time.
Sometimes, for a moment, everything is just as you need it to be. The memories of such moments live in the heart, waiting for the time you need to think on them, if only to remind yourself that for a short while, everything had been fine, and might be so again. I didn’t have many memories like that…No matter what might happen or what fate Miss Everett had in store for me, I now had the image of Miss Suzie Lowe to place alongside them. She would remind me that I was a girl who longed for things, a girl who wanted to become something more than she was seen to be.
If you enjoy historical novels, I highly recommend this book.
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