Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Charity Girl

I just finished reading the terrific historical novel Charity Girl, by Michael Lowenthal. During World War I, thirty thousand women were rounded up on suspicion of transmitting venereal diseases to soldiers. More than fifteen thousand, found to have sexually transmitted diseases, were detained for months at a time. Some of these women were prostitutes, although many were arrested for the "crime" of dressing too provocatively or being in the wrong neighborhood without an escort. They were sent to dozens of detention homes (many of them former brothels) across the country where they were subjected to hard labor, terrible humiliations, and forced medical treatment.

Lowenthal imagines a 17 year old Jewish girl from Boston, Frieda Mintz, who escapes her emotionally abusive mother and the prospect of an arranged marriage with a man twice her age to work as a bundle wrapper in a Boston department store. She falls in love and spends an impulsive night with Felix Morse, a U.S. Army private. Unfortunately, he give her more than love; when he tests positive for syphilis, he names Frieda. She is fired from her job and sent to a rural detention center.

On his website, Lowenthal writes that he spent a year researching this book, and it shows. He marries his extraordinary writing abilities with historical detail to create a story that really pops off the page. Here's a section from the scene where Felix takes Frieda to a baseball game:
Frieda munched nut after nut, cracking the next before she'd downed the last, for their flavor and because she hadn't eaten since her gumdrop snack at noon. As she gorged she read the advertisements that covered the park's far wall. Whiskey, razor blades, gasoline. Every homer wins a Delano hat! This was clearly a venue in which to persuade men to buy things. A place where men went weak and could be swayed. She was just one of just half a dozen girls in the whole section. On all sides, row after row of derby hats, like the keys of a huge Underwood typewriter. (Charity Girl, p. 53)
See what I mean? Read it for yourself. It's an adult novel, although it features a teenage character and I would recommend it to any high school reader.

Oh, and did I mention that Michael Lowenthal is one of the writing instructors in Lesley's MFA program (as well as at Boston College) and that he's a real mensch?

1 comment:

caraf said...

One of my former grad students is working on a book on public health and sex education during this period, and she has done a lot of research on WWI and a bit on the "charity girls." Public health advocates during this period could be pretty draconian, especially to working class women, immigrants, etc. She was really excited when this novel came out. Not many people get fictional tie-ins to their dissertations! And cool about the Lesley connection.