The Virgin CureBook - 2011
The much-anticipated follow-up to The Birth House , The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay's place as one of our most powerful storytellers.
"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."
The Virgin Cure begins in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. A series of betrayals lead Moth, at only twelve years old, to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, where eventually she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as "The Infant School." Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and clean," and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth.
While Moth's housemates risk falling prey to the myth of the "virgin cure"--the belief that deflowering a girl can heal the incurable and tainted--her new friend Dr. Sadie warns Moth to question and observe the world around her so she won't share the same fate. Still, Moth dreams of answering to no one but herself. There's a high price for such independence, though, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.
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Following in the footsteps of The Birth House , her powerful debut novel, The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay's place as one of our most beguiling storytellers. (Not that it has to… that is pretty much taken care of!) "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." So begins The Virgin Cure , a novel set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth's father smiled, tipped his hat and walked away from his wife and daughter forever, and Moth has never stopped imagining that one day they may be reunited -- despite knowing in her heart what he chose over them. Her hard mother is barely making a living with her fortune-telling, sometimes for well-heeled clients, yet Moth is all too aware of how she really pays the rent. Life would be so much better, Moth knows, if fortune had gone the other way - if only she'd had the luxury of a good family and some station in life. The young Moth spends her days wandering the streets of her own and better neighbourhoods, imagining what days are like for the wealthy women whose grand yet forbidding gardens she slips through when no one's looking. Yet every night Moth must return to the disease- and grief-ridden tenements she calls home. The summer Moth turns twelve, her mother puts a halt to her explorations by selling her boots to a local vendor, convinced that Moth was planning to run away. Wanting to make the most of her every asset, she also sells Moth to a wealthy woman as a servant, with no intention of ever seeing her again. These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks and prostitutes, but also a locale frequented by New York's social elite. Their patronage supports the shadowy undersphere, where businesses can flourish if they truly understand the importance of wealth and social standing - and of keeping secrets. In that world Moth meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as an "infant school." There Moth finds the orderly solace she has always wanted, and begins to imagine herself embarking upon a new path. Yet salvation does not come without its price: Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and clean," and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth. That's not the worst of the situation, though. In a time and place where mysterious illnesses ravage those who haven't been cautious, no matter their social station, diseased men yearn for a "virgin cure" - thinking that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal the incurable and tainted. Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works to help young women like her, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her. Moth's new friends are falling prey to fates both expected and forced upon them, yet she knows the law will not protect her, and that polite society ignores her. Still she dreams of answering to no one but herself. There's a high price for such independence, though, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.
Moth, abandoned by her father and raised by her hard-scrabble, fortune-telling mother, roams the mean streets of New York City in 1871 dreaming of a better life than that of the tenement slum where she lives. When she turns 12, her mother sells her as a servant to a wealthy, demanding –and, as Moth soon learns, brutally cruel – woman, Mrs. Wentworth. With the help of another servant, Moth breaks free only to land on the streets again, this time totally alone and homeless. A chance meeting leads to a tentative friendship with Dr. Sadie, a ground-breaking female physician who tends to the poor and desperate. McKay’s vivid descriptions make the novel come to life as the reader inhabits the bawdy Bowery district and filthy streets of NYC, as well as the sumptuous concert halls and brothels. Dr. Sadie is based on the author’s own great-great grandmother.
The title comes from the myth of the time that deflowering a virgin would cure a man of deadly syphilis. Sprinkled throughout the novel are snippets from newspapers, journals and periodicals of the era, providing a glimpse into the lives of both the privileged and the down-trodden.
Tags: historical fiction, Canadian
Reviewed by DC.
Moth, part Gypsy and born into abject poverty in 1871 Manhattan, so her prospects are dim. Still, the 12-year-old, given her name by her capricious and since-decamped father, shares a lumpy straw mattress in a tenement with her fortune-telling Mama and dreams of a life she glimpses through windows in the neighbourhoods north of Houston.
It’s not that Moth is blind to her fate – Mama hints broadly that their salvation hinges on Moth’s successful appointment as a maid to the wealthy – but Moth figures on 13. Thirteen, and she’ll find her own way. Mama, streetwise but self-indulgent, nursing a broken heart with bottles of Dr. Godfrey’s cordial, has other plans. One summer night, Moth is awakened and sold away.
There’s more than a shading of Dickensian cruelty in Moth’s stay at the Wentworth household, and she endures it with heartbreaking resolve to support her mother. When she finally escapes, her discovery that her mother has deserted their home is all the more harrowing. As in all good fairy tales, the orphaning marks the beginning of the real story: Lower Manhattan is the heart of darkness for a motherless girl of no means. “Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn, and then themselves,” she tells us. “The most valuable thing a girl possessed was hidden between her legs, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.”
On the mean streets, she sleeps on a rooftop in a barrel with mouldy burlap bags for warmth, begging pennies and fending off attacks from guttersnipes and lecherous men. You’ll feel the grime under your fingernails. Rats move inside Moth’s straw mattress, clods of horse dung fuel barrel fires, and she passes time guessing whether what’s squirming in garbage bins is rat, cat or baby. When the snow melts in spring, the streets of the slum run with “a vile slop of chicken innards, bits of wet newsprint and stale dung.” There are rag pickers, bloodsuckers, oyster stabbers and Dick the Ratter. McKay’s ability to make Moth’s slum experience visceral is testament to her meticulous research and storytelling prowess.
But if Moth is vulnerable, she is also wily. “It was inevitable that I should part with my innocence,” she says, having been recruited as a prostitute-in-training within days, “but at least under Miss Everett’s roof I hoped I might get a chance to give it up for a fair price.” At the Infant School, Miss Everett is madam to a handful of girls whose maidenheads she will sell at a premium to wealthy men. It’s worth noting that 18th-century slang for female genitalia included “commodity” and “Eve’s custom house,” but what has been most prized through the centuries is the unbroken hymen, long linked (unreliably) to a young woman’s purity.
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