In 1871, New York City was—as it has always been—filled with the stark contrast of ostentatious wealth and privilege co-existing with poverty, deprivation, and its agonizing consequences. The doors of Manhattan’s mansions were unlatched daily so ladies trapped in tightly-bound corsets could “promenade” through their elite neighborhoods, while jilted wives from less-impressive addresses took out newspaper ads beseeching runaway husbands to return to their families in the slums of the Lower East Side.
The divide between the classes was clear and harsh, and there was scant aid or sympathy for the less fortunate. The poor were often disdainfully cast adrift with no consideration of gender or age, and women had few choices and opportunities—regardless of their economic status.
The plight of women and girls in post-Civil War Manhattan is a central theme of Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure, which focuses on the pain, struggles, and indignities suffered by females not “of a certain station”. It also explores the difficulties endured by high-class ladies who only seem to have everything and women with the courage to break free of constricting expectations.
The story is told through the eyes of Moth, a preteen girl and Lower East Side resident. She was given her unique name by her father, who claimed it was whispered to him by a mystical tree old enough to know “…all the secrets of New York.” But other than her name, Moth’s father didn’t give her much except the memory of him gallantly tipping his hat as he walked out of her life forever.
“Your man was a first-time man,” a friend tells Moth’s mother. “He was after the firsts of a girl—the first time she smiles at him, their first kiss,” McKay writes with heartbreaking insight. “There was nothing Mama could have done to keep him around,” Moth says in a voice exuding the wisdom and cynicism absorbed while living all of her 12 years on the brutal Chrystie Street. “Her first times with him were gone.”
Moth yearns for a mother who wouldn’t “…push me away and say, ‘When you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off… that should be enough.’” But Mama is broken-down, bitter, and so pragmatic that she crudely explains the technicalities of sex to her young daughter, offering merely “…until you’re ready, stay out of their way” as advice about men—which, although drearily pessimistic, is not improper guidance during a treacherous era when the age of consent is ten years old. “The young girls of New York understood (for better or for worse) the value of declaring themselves to be of a palatable age to gentlemen.”
Moth feels the danger around her and knows her only parent isn’t cut out of a fairy tale, but “I didn’t mind,” she says. “I loved her.” And although Mama’s treatment of Moth is mostly horrific, it’s believable, given her circumstances. Her husband left her penniless with a child to feed, she is looked down upon by a bigoted and narrow-minded neighborhood for being a “Gypsy” and a fortune-teller, she is forced to surrender her body to her landlord when she can’t pay her rent, and “Mama owed every man with a ‘Mister’ in front of his name for five blocks around.” She is also trapped inside the squalid confines of the Lower East Side, the physical and emotional experience of which McKay artfully resurrects:
“The rooms I shared with Mama were in the middle of a row of four-story tenements people called ‘The Slaughterhouses.’ If you lived there, there was every chance you’d die there too… Mothers went days without eating so they could afford food for their children… They stood in the courtyards behind the buildings, pushing stones over the ribs of their washboards and sighing over the men they’d lost… The women gossiped and groused while waiting for their turn at the pump, hordes of flies and children all around them… you could feel it coming, the empty-bellied life of your mother—always having to decide what to give up next, what trinket to sell, which dreams to forget.”
It’s this understanding of Mama’s bleak existence and her constant talk about daughters unburdening their “sad, worn-out” mothers by working as live-in maids at rich women’s homes that make the ambitious Moth plan to run away when she turns 13. She hopes to “…find a way of becoming something on my own, something beyond Mama’s expectations.”
But Moth’s selfless decision to delay her departure for Mama’s sake brings tragic consequences. She is abandoned by her mother and sold off as a servant to the sadistic Mrs. Wentworth, whose abuse of Moth seems torn from a melodramatic Victorian novel and is unworthy of a narrative that is otherwise subtly authentic. Mrs. Wentworth isn’t a particularly credible character, but her actions become more plausible when the reasons behind her deranged behavior are revealed.
Moth eventually escapes her involuntary servitude, and the battle to survive on her own leads to a training program for adolescent prostitutes in which she learns the ghastly meaning of The Virgin Cure. Moth navigates through further cruelty, shocking immorality, occasional kindness, and has a taste of what youth should be during her sweet but fleeting flirtation with a teenage boy.
Compassion and friendship also come from Dr. Sadie, a woman with unconventional independence that has shoved her to the fringe of society. She practices medicine in the only places a female physician will be accepted—a side show and the bordello where she meets Moth. Dr. Sadie is an admirable character and a sign of impending cultural change—but her voice as a second narrator is distracting, and it disrupts the flow of the story. Moth’s voice is so strong that another is unnecessary.
Moth’s entertaining and informative journey is a page-turner with a remarkably vivid setting, and The Virgin Cure is an intriguing novel that overflows with emotion and meticulous historical detail. It’s a well-written, thoroughly researched, and honest glimpse into a troubling yet fascinating era.