The Virgin Cure
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.
That slum-house mystic eventually sells her daughter to Mrs. Wentworth, a wealthy woman in need of a lady’s maid. So at the age of 12, Moth leaves the slums of New York.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Wentworth is an abusive bitch, so Moth escapes and returns home only to find that mommy dearest has packed up and left. After a few weeks on the streets, Moth succumbs to the charms of the well-fed and freshly scrubbed Mae, who is a whore-in-training. Moth follows her home and joins Miss Everett’s house.
While a kindly doctor offers her another life, Moth likes her new digs. While not naive enough to think that she won’t eventually turn into a whore (albeit a well-kept one), and that Miss Everett isn’t in this for kindness, Moth still appreciates the comforts of her new life. I think there’s also a sense of obligation and gratitude to Mae, who she doesn’t want to skip out on.
However, through the kindly Dr. Sadie, Moth’s awareness of what’s really happening to the young women who think selling their bodies makes for a good future gradually grows. She learns of the ravages of syphilis, and the common belief in the 1870s that men afflicted with syphilis can find a cure by having sex with a virgin (hence the title of the novel).
In a weird way, the novel eventually comes full-circle and while Moth doesn’t abandon Miss Everett’s house quite as quickly as we might hope, she is eventually able to create her own secure future based on her mother’s past. I certainly wasn’t expecting Mr. Dink, but I like how he came onto the scene and how his show offered Moth another chance. Dink’s Dime Museum and Palace of Illusions sounds quite ridiculous, but these shows were all the rage and so what might seem like a convenient escape for Moth wasn’t all that unrealistic after all.
One unexpected bonus to the book is all of the little historical asides, like excerpts from fake ads and newspaper articles…they really add to the sense of time and place. This is the type of historical fiction that I particularly enjoy. I got a glimpse into a part of history I didn’t know about (virgin cures! who knew?!?) and I was entertained at the same time.